The first episodes of bloodshed occurred in Pasajes and Seville. At the end of May 1931, a group of striking fishermen from Pasajes, in the province of Guipúzcoa, started out on a march to San Sebastián; their progress was blocked by the Civil Guard, who opened fire, killing eight and wounding over fifty demonstrators. In Seville, after several weeks of strikes and disturbances, four prisoners were killed in the early hours of 23 July in the Parque de María Luisa. According to Manuel Azaña, then the Minister of War, the event 'appeared to be an application of the ley de fugas', the law which legitimised the shooting of detainees trying to escape. In the words of Miguel Maura, the Interior Minister, 'at dawn, while prisoners were being moved from Seville to Cádiz, and some of them were being transferred to another truck in the middle of the Parque de María Luisa, they tried to escape and the army, under the command of a young lieutenant, opened fire and killed four of them'.5
As early as that summer, as Azaña noted in his diary, 'because of the strikes being called everywhere by the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo', the government decided 'to impose an urgent and severe remedy'. Maura set out the general features of a decree, 'a legal instrument of repression', which was to become the Defence of the Republic Act, and Largo Caballero, who was prepared to reduce the power of the CNT at any price, stated that 'he would go further, because of the danger faced by the Republic from the trade union movement'.6
Maura and Azaña, who had different ideas about authority and the way to tackle unrest, did agree about one thing: the unpopularity of the Civil Guard among the working classes, especially the peasants,
5 Manuel Azaña, Memorias políticas y de guerra, 4 vols., Crítica, Barcelona, 1981, vol. I, p. 55; Miguel Maura, Así cayó Alfonso XIII. De una dictadura a otra, Ariel, Barcelona, 1966, p. 285.
6 Azaña, Memorias políticas y de guerra, vol. I, p. 48, annotation on 21 July 1931.
who hated them, although, Azaña went on to say, there were others who adored them 'as the only upholders of social order'. As he explained: 'The Civil Guard has always been harsh, and what's worse, irresponsible'. And it was a situation that did not seem to improve in the early days of the Republic, 'because many are the mayors and local councillors who used to be the victims and quarry of the Civil Guard, which does not get on well with the new authorities'.
Events in various places on 11 and 12 May, with the burning of convents, confirmed for Miguel Maura 'the impossibility of dealing with public disturbances in cities with the Civil Guard', whose Mauser rifles, 'with their long range and slow loading ... made it hard for them to adapt to street fighting'. In any intervention 'it was inevitable that there was a high number of casualties, given their weaponry and their prescribed mode of procedure'. And so a new corps of armed police with a daunting name was born, the Assault Guard, under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Agustín Muñoz Grandes, who, according to Maura, 'created from scratch a perfect corps of trained, uniformed troops, who were hand-picked and had impeccable discipline'. They wore dark-blue uniforms and were armed with pistols and truncheons instead of rifles.
With the coming of the Republic, those who had hitherto had no power found new opportunities to become involved in politics, to influence the authorities, thanks to the regime change and the weakened state in which those who had up to then occupied positions of power now found themselves. With the loss of control in the city councils, the increase of socialist influence through the implementation of the joint committees in agriculture and the new legal framework set up by the Ministry of Labour to run labour relations, the owners' resistance to republican legislation greatly intensified. This hostility could be seen to be particularly acrimonious in areas with large estates and a rural proletariat, where social struggles seemed to be most intense. With the employers failing to comply with the basic regulations governing agricultural labour and republican social legislation in general, the gates were opened for a rash of protests from the peasants during the first two years of the Republic. In fact, what they were asking for in these conflicts was not social revolution, confiscations from the rich or land collectivisation - something that could be found in the most radical pamphlets - but better salaries, employment rights and access to land use.
'Situation untenable' were words often repeated in telegrams sent by mayors and civil governors to the Interior Minister, asking for funds for public works and to help the unemployed: '400 unemployed; all Council funds spent, begging in the streets; situation untenable; send funds soonest', wrote the mayor of Casariche, in the province of Seville, to the Interior Minister in a telegram that back in 1931 was a blueprint for many others from various towns and villages in Andalusia and Extremadura. And constantly underlying these messages was an attempt to show what would happen if, as was often the case, the money failed to appear: robberies, attacks on country estates and farms, a 'real danger for the maintenance of public order'.7
All this forced the civil governors to maintain a fine balance between pressure from the mayors and people in the provinces, and the higher authority in Madrid. The idea that the solution would come from above was widespread in the early days of the Republic, a time of optimism still, judging by the number of petitions from all over Spain to the authorities to provide relief for problems ranging from hunger to natural disasters and to distribute a little justice and charity. This was a hangover from a paternalistic era which had still not entirely disappeared, but it also shows how the unemployed and their families were neglected in a society in which there was no unemployment insurance whatsoever. It is true to say that, apart from the executive order of 28 May 1931, whereby loans were made by the Instituto Nacional de Previsión (National Benefit Institute) 'to solve the unemployment situation', there was no progress at all during the term of the coalition government.
Potential solutions that had been commonly used in the past were now no longer available. There was no money to finance public works, and even those who could provide employment refused to hire union members, who were often forced to leave the union as a condition for being hired. These were threatening messages that, while they might not have met strong resistance, had the twofold effect of getting rid of 'enlightened workers' and of lowering previously agreed wages. Meanwhile, all any civil governor could do was to record the event, come up with a potential 'peaceful' solution, impose it if necessary and, when all else failed, maintain order.
7 All the quotes taken from telegram exchanges between the civil governors of the various provinces and the Interior Ministry are housed in the National Historical Archive, Madrid.
'Deploy the Civil Guard' was another of the most common petitions made by local authorities, civil governors and employers to the Interior Minister. There was nothing surprising about such requests. All it took was for a strike to be called by a section of a trade union and the local mayor would ask the civil governor to intervene, and he in turn would ask the minister to authorise him to deploy the Civil Guard. At other times, it would be some employer who would contact the minister directly to ask for armed assistance at harvest time, 'with lodging provided and any extra expenses paid for'.
The fact that employers and the local councils had to meet any costs arising from the deployment of the Civil Guard, whenever this was asked for, is highly indicative of the lack of resources and usually poor financial management suffered by the State, and of the structural problems of her law enforcement units, who were badly paid, poorly equipped and, like the rest of the administration in general, somewhat ineffective. The Civil Guard was further affected by the dispersion of its forces. Whenever there was an outbreak of unrest and they had to go to other locations, typically from the provinces to the major cities, their villages of origin were left 'unprotected' and panic would spread among the authorities affected by the threat that 'extremist elements', taking advantage of the situation, would demonstrate against 'order and property'.
Hopes for a radical change in class relationships in the rural sphere were soon dashed. That, at any rate, was how it was perceived by many peasant groups, who, while never ceasing to appeal for protection from the government, showed their discontent in confrontations fraught with illusions and potential demands, with the dream of social revolution tantalisingly round the corner. The legislation implemented by the government was possibly right for the time and, but for the much-discussed agricultural reform that was yet to materialise, a good number of day-labourers and tenants benefited from the early winds of change. But unemployment was getting out of hand and the government had no resources to alleviate the situation. Many landowners were already beginning to express openly their strong hostility towards the 'torment' of the Republic, and the forces of order were incapable of policing it without the use of arms.
Hardly any blood was shed in these disturbances until what one might call the fatal week that ran from Thursday 31 December 1931 to Tuesday 5 January 1932. There was nothing at the end of the year to suggest what was to come, nor was the Republic experiencing any particular tension. The Constitution had been passed on 9 December in the Cortes by a large majority, Alcalá Zamora was elected President a day later, and on 15 December Azaña formed a government.
It all began in Castilblanco, a village in the north-west of the province of Badajoz, in the jurisdiction of Herrera del Duque. The Federation of Land Workers in this province called a general strike for 30 and 31 December, to protest against the Governor and the colonel commanding the Civil Guard, whom the Federation accused of supporting the landlords and caciques in their opposition against the social legislation that had recently been implemented. The strike was generally peaceful, with just the odd confrontation between the Civil Guard and land-workers, and on the second day, when the demonstrators were returning home, the mayor, or else a landlord, according to other sources, asked the Civil Guard to disperse them. There were clashes, and one worker was shot dead by the Civil Guard. The peasants, beset with rage and hatred, that hatred which Azaña had mentioned in his diary, turned on the four guards and slaughtered them with stakes, rocks and knives.
Enraged, undisciplined and faced with the passive attitude of certain government authorities, the Civil Guard worked off steam for a few days with deadly reprisals. The most outrageous incidents, apart from those in Zalamea de la Serena, where they killed two workers and wounded a further three, occurred a long way from Castilblanco and areas with large estates, in locations where the unions and employers were in conflict over matters that were typical of times of low employment. In Épila, in the province of Zaragoza, the workers of the sugar factory, apparently at the instigation of the CNT and with the opposition of the UGT, proposed that with any new hiring, priority should be given to those on this district's census. On Saturday 2 January, with the factory on strike, the agricultural workers stayed away from work and some businesses remained closed. On the Sunday, some 500 people assembled in the town square. The Civil Guard tried to clear the square, and opened fire, killing two day-labourers and wounding several others. The following day, in Jeresa, a village in the district of La Safor in the province of Valencia, an assembly of peasants who were in conflict with their employers over the latter's refusal to accept proposed working conditions, hurled insults and rocks at the mounted Civil Guard. There was a sabre charge and gunfire, resulting in four deaths and thirteen people wounded, two of them women.
And then there was Arnedo. The events in this town in La Rioja, with a population of just over 5,000, the hub of a shoemaking cottage industry, gave rise to an 'outcry' against the Civil Guard for its bloodbath in the Plaza de la República: six men and five women dead; eleven women and nineteen men wounded, five of whom were unable to work again; and a Civil Guard with a light bullet wound. All ages were represented: among the dead were a seventy-year-old woman and a child of four, whose mother was also killed; the wounded included men and women of over sixty and a five-year-old child whose leg had to be amputated. With such a casualty list, it was no wonder that the 'outcry', as Azaña called it, was 'deafening'.
The resource material we have at our disposal is plentiful, varied and reliable, leaving little room for ambiguity. Almost a year before this incident, a dispute arose in the shoemaking firm belonging to the Muro family, when the owner's son fired an employee who subsequently received the support of his colleagues, and they in turn were fired as well. There followed a long period of negotiation, in which the Civil Governor took part, but they were not reinstated, so the workers went on strike on 5 January, with the UGT leaders and strike committee inviting 'all enlightened citizens' to join with the 'downtrodden workers . to request our and our children's daily bread, which these heartless bosses want to snatch away from us'.
That same day, the Civil Governor, Ildefonso Vidal, arrived to chair a meeting in the town hall with the mayor, various councillors, the commanding officer of the local Civil Guard garrison and some employers who agreed to take on the workers sacked by Muro. The demonstrating workers arrived at the town square, with women and children at the front, to be met by a formation of the Civil Guard with one sergeant, four corporals and twenty troopers under the command of Lieutenant Juan Corcuera y Piedrahita. Without any warning or advisory shots in the air, 'fire was opened unexpectedly and devastat-ingly', and only ceased 'on the order of the commanding officer when he came out of the town hall'. There had been no 'collective aggression or collective resistance' and the panic-stricken crowd fled the square. According to the conclusions in the inquiry led by the Civil Governor of Vizcaya, 'the Lieutenant commanding the troop should not have broken up the demonstration . because in the town hall were his superiors, the Civil Governor and the commanding officer, who had given him no order to do so'.
The preliminary investigations by a military judge and by a second judge in further indictments found no case against any of the inhabitants, although there are conflicting versions as to whether the bullet that wounded the civil guard came from a handgun belonging to one of the demonstrators or, as the doctor who treated the injured declared, from a Mauser. The military judgment, handed down in Burgos on 30 January 1934, cleared the lieutenant 'of the crime of murder and inflicting injuries through criminal negligence, because there is insufficient proof that he did commit such a crime, and the same ruling applies to charges brought against the Civil Guard unit under his orders'.8
Azaña telephoned General Sanjurjo to notify him that he was being relieved of his post as Director of the Civil Guard. In the conversation that the Prime Minister recorded in his diaries, there is no mention of what Sanjurjo thought of atrocities such as those committed by his subordinates in Arnedo, but the general was in no doubt as to who was to blame. Many socialist town councils were peopled with 'riffraff', 'undesirables' who 'incite disorder, intimidate employers, cause damage to property and feel bound to clash with the Civil Guard'. Socialists, said the general to Azaña, should not be in the government 'because their presence encourages those who favour excess'.9 Such was the atmosphere of disorder that he believed existed, that a few months later he led the first military uprising against the republican regime.
The dead were duly buried, Sanjurjo was transferred to become Director of the Carabineros, Miguel Cabanellas was appointed Director of the Civil Guard, and the Arnedo incident faded into the background, dwarfed by other tragic events, particularly those in Casas Viejas exactly one year later. The Civil Guard felt it was being unfairly vilified, and the memory of Castilblanco might have explained their sudden, bloody response. But it was this very response that continued feeding the reality and myth of a State that was failing
8 Extensive information and analysis of these conflicts can be found in Julián Casanova, Anarchism, the Republic and Civil War in Spain: 1931-1939, Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 24-6. The best study on Arnedo is by Carlos Gil, La República en la plaza: los sucesos de Arnedo de 1932, Instituto de Estudios Riojanos, Logroño, 2002.
9 Azaña, Memorias políticas y de guerra, vol. I, p. 365, annotation on 6 January 1932.
to control, even with military and governmental authorities in place, its machinery of repression, and it did not seem capable of enforcing its new legislation either.
The features of conflicts in the cities during the republican-socialist coalition government were different to those pertaining in the rural world. The most notable of these is the fact that the struggle for control of available jobs, the distribution of trade union influence - which, at a time of crisis, when the unions became employment exchanges, was linked to the previous feature - and confrontation over the corporate structure were the basic connecting threads of anarchist agitation, strikes and bitter clashes between the two branches of trade unionism that were entrenched in the working classes. The government-backed UGT, by legislating and using the machinery of the State, began to exert ever more influence in the sphere of labour relations. The CNT saw this as interference that severely limited its sphere of influence and opted for direct action, without State intermediaries, with the streets as the setting for its struggle and confrontation with the State, and its most radical sector began to preach revolution through disturbances and revolt. This clash unleashed accusations and insults and placed a large sector of the organised working class at odds with the Republic.
The CNT's ability to stir up antagonism against the joint committees soon became evident in cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Zaragoza, where there was a predominance of anarcho-syndicalists. Not surprisingly, Barcelona was the most contested forum in this struggle, with a rapidly reorganised and expanding CNT, and the UGT willing to exploit the situation to make inroads in an area that had hitherto proved hard to penetrate. From the early days of the Republic, industrialists and UGT unions had denounced outrages, insults and 'brutal coercion' by the CNT, whose unions refused to register their members on the social electoral roll set up to elect representatives to the joint committees.
With his customary precision, Manuel Azana noted on various occasions the importance of this 'civil war' between the two trade union factions, 'probably the harshest political reality in Spain at this time': 'The CNT unions', he noted on 26 September 1931, 'are refusing to comply with social legislation in Catalonia. They do not accept the arbitration committees or Department of Labour inspections. We have had a fair amount of problems in the Cabinet over this matter, and Largo Caballero has fought hard ... to bring the undisciplined unionists under the authority of the departments of the Ministry of Labour'. On 7 May 1932, following a meeting with Largo and Fernando de los Ríos, the Prime Minister expressed it even more clearly: 'The socialists are determined to maintain control of social matters in Catalonia, or rather (because at the moment they do not have this control) in ensuring, through ministerial bodies, their defence against their dire enemies, the syndicalists of the CNT'.10
The response to the CNT was soon to be evident on the very stage that many of its militants had chosen for their struggle: the streets. Between May and July 1931, the CNT called various strikes which, in some cases, were joined by the Communists; they led to a good many casualties - for example, in Pasajes and Seville - and dashed many of the hopes of more moderate syndicalists. The 'civil war' between the two trade union organisations escalated in the general strike called by the Asturias Miners' Union in June, and the gap between them opened even wider in the nationwide telephone operators' strike called by the anarchist unions at the beginning of July. This strike was not supported by the other three unions in the company, and Maura opposed direct negotiation by the strikers with the company. Clashes with the forces of order resulted in several casualties, while many people were arrested and others dismissed.
The CNT, with its struggle against State intervention in disputes between employees and workers, contributed to the failure of the 'conciliation' procedure, the essence of the corporate system, but received very few benefits in return. Since the Republic did not, or could not, offer the workers the favourable results they expected, the most radical views very soon began to be heard among the large number of rural and urban unemployed. The internal struggle lead to a schism, with thousands of militants in the most industrialised areas, where the organisation was most firmly entrenched, leaving the CNT, including some of its most outstanding leaders, such as Juan Peiró and Ángel Pestaña.
The hard core of the anarchist movement used killing and repression as a springboard for mobilisation against the Republic and the leaders of the CNT at that time. The term 'government by violence' (el crimen, método de gobierno) began to appear in the anarchist
10 Memorias políticas y de guerra, vol. I, p. 465.
media following the events in Pasajes and Seville. And it was from January 1932 onwards that this talk of the spilling of 'proletarian blood' finally became rooted in the anarchist media. Protest escalated into revolt. There were three attempts at armed insurrection in two years, incited by anarchist militants, supported to some degree by workers and peasants. The first two were directed against the republican-socialist coalition government. The third, the one with the most casualties, which we shall look at later, occurred a few days after Larroux's radicals and the right won the elections.
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