In Barcelona, the great revolutionary city, this year’s parade for the international labour day is called off . In recent weeks, tensions have been rising, with confrontations between police and CNT Control Patrols.
Violent incident at the Barcelona central telephone office. Without knowledge of the Catalan government, the Catalan councilor for public order, the Communist Rodriguez Salas, tries to take control over the city’s central telephone office, which has been controlled since the beginning of the war by the CNT and UGT. Salas got this order directly from the Catalan minister for inner affairs, Ayguade, also a Communist. A company of Assault Guards storms the building around 3 p.m., arresting everybody they can. The armed guards on the machine gun post at the stairs on the second floor are not informed in advance, nor is anyone else in the building. When they see armed uniformed men coming up the stairs and hear the yells and shouting from the first floor they shout “stop there and don’t come up” at which point a gunfight breaks out. The anarchist guards resist their attackers and keep control of the upper floors of the building. This skirmish leads to fighting throughout the city. Several hundred barricades are built; Communist-controlled police units occupy high buildings and church towers, shooting at everything that moves. The Communists attack not only the CNT, they also arrest the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) members. The actions are obviously well planned. Some police units and the Republican army stay neutral in the fighting, although army officers, if members of CNT/Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) or POUM, are also arrested if caught at Communist-controlled check points. The police director of Barcelona — a member of the CNT — together with the leader of the Control Patrols comes to the telephone central in an attempt to get the occupying police forces to leave the central peacefully. They have no success, instead Catalonian prime minister Lluis Companys declares that he, like everyone else, was not informed in advance by his minister for internal affairs, but that he agrees all in all with the police action. The radio stations of the CNT and FAI call hourly upon their members to maintain public order and keep calm.
The CNT calls a general strike in Barcelona. Gunfights break out throughout the city.
Companys manages to gain a fragile truce between the different fighting groups, and forces Rodriguez Salas to resign as he was blamed for the police action against the telephone exchange. However, Communist groups are still arresting people and meanwhile, the Communist official Antoni Sese is shot, probably by anarchists.
“Neutral” police troops from Valencia arrive in Barcelona to stop the fighting. The 5,000 Assault Guards (chosen more or less carefully for their political opinions, to ensure a “neutral” force and the trust of both sides) occupy several strategic points throughout the city. The workers abandon the barricades and the telephone central is handed over to the government. When the Assault Guards enter the city and passed by the central building of the anarchist CNT, several hundreds of them salute the black and red Anarchist flag on the building. Nevertheless, reprisals against the anti-Stalinist left are starting throughout the Republic.
The fighting in Barcelona draw to an end, with more than 500 dead and over 1500 wounded, not many less than the causulties suffered during the miliyary coup, ten months before. Many activists are under illegal arrest in a number of Communist-controlled police stations, militia barracks and secret prisons, known as checas, distributed around the city.
In Barcelona, police find the horribly mutilated bodies of 12 murdered young men. Eight of the bodies are so mutilated that they cannot be identified. The four identified bodies belong to young anarchists, illegally arrested together with eight friends on May 4 outside the Communist militia barracks in Barcelona, when they were passing by on a truck with “CNT” written on it. The names of the identified young men are: Cesar Fernández Neri, Jose Villena, Juan Antonio, and Luis Carneras. Police also found the dead bodies of the Italian anarchist professor Berneri and two of his friends, who were arrested during the May incidents by Communist militias.
The Communist parties (PCE, PSUC) accuse the POUM of being behind the May Days in Barcelona. Spanish minister of the Interior, Angel Galarza is blamed for failing to uncover the “Trotskyite plot” in Barcelona, and pressure mounts on prime minister Caballero, who opposes these accusations.
The Communist ministers demand the suppression of the POUM, calling them a Fascist organization working for Franco, an accusation the Communist press has made for several months in propaganda campaigns against political opponents such as the Anarchist councils in Aragon. As Orwell was learning if you tell a lie, tell it big.
Largo Caballero is left friendless resigns, and Juan Negrín becomes prime minister of the Republic. He is presented to the press as the man of the hour, leader of the “Government of the Victory”. The CNT ministers have been expelled from the new government.
Letter by Harry Milton (May 19, 1937) Harry Milton’s letters from Spain in May 1937 to the American Trotskyist Martin Abern give a dramatic firsthand account of events in Barcelona and their political aftermath. As communist-backed forces conducted a wave of repression against the CNT/FAI rank and file and the now-outlawed POUM:
The P.O.U.M. has been suppressed. Its paper and plant, all institutions and buildings seized. All occupants arrested. Most of the leaders including Nin have been jailed.
Every foreigner not a Stalinist is suspect and scores and scores have been arrested.
Hundreds arrests take place. The streets bustle with armed assault guards and a Hitlerite tenor prevails.
All prisoners are held incommunicado; a gigantic frame-up is being concocted. The charge: Criminal political conspiracy with the German and Italian fascists.
I’ve been running around like a hunted rat. Detectives have appeared at my hotel. Fortunately, the clerk speaks English and gave me warning.
Bill Paynter, letter to Arthur Horner (26th May 1937)
To read the newspapers in England, one gets the mental picture of uniformed soldiers, the rattle of machine gun fire, the hum of aeroplanes and the crash of bombs. Such is a very incomplete picture. The real picture is seen more in the drab scenes, in the less inspiring and less terrifying aspects. To see twenty or thirty little children in a small peaceful railway station, fatherless and motherless, awaiting transportation to a centre where they can be better cared for, is to get a picture of misery. To see middle aged and old women with their worldly belongings tied within the four corners of a blanket, seeking refuge from a town or village that has been bombed, is to get a picture of the havoc and desolation. To see long queues of women and children outside the shops patiently waiting to get perhaps a half a bar of soap or a bit of butter, is to get a picture of the privation and suffering entailed.
The new Negrín government accepts the Communist accusations against the POUM and bans their newspaper La Batalla.
Madrid continues to be bombed on a daily basis, as the Nationalist air force once again gain the upper hand in the air over the city, due to the superiority of the German planes and pilots in contrast ti the Russian airplanes, often flown by inexperienced pilots. Meanwhile, Spanish pilots are sent to Russia for short training.
A serious diplomatic incident: during an attack by the Republican air force against Nationalist air bases and Ibiza harbour, the German heavy cruiser Deutschland threatens the Republican planes. In response, two Russian pilots drop their bombs on the Deutschland, causing severe damage on the ship and killing 31 sailors.
The German ship Admiral Scheer shells the town of Almería in reprisal for the bombing of the Deutschland, the day before, causing 19 deaths, 55 wounded, and destroying 150 houses. “Outraged” Germany and Italy leave the meetings of the Nonintervention committee. The German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer shells the port and the city of Almería with 200 shells. The front page headlines of the Diario de Almería, dated June 3, 1937, referred to the Britsh and French press reporting the “criminal bombardment of Almería”. Here
Navacerrada Pass, Segovia front, Spain, late May–early June 1937
Toward the end of May 1937, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa arrived at the Navacerrada Pass, between Madrid and Segovia, to cover an offensive launched by Spanish Republican troops to relieve pressure on the northern front. The failed offensive was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.