Eyewitness in Barcelona - George Orwell

Submitted by Matthew on 8 January, 2010 - 2:38 Author: George Orwell

It has been asserted in the Communist press that the so-called uprising in Barcelona was a carefully prepared effort to overthrow the Government and even to hand Catalonia over to the fascists by provoking foreign intervention in Barcelona. The second part of this suggestion is almost too ridiculous to need refuting. If the POUM and the left-wing anarchists were really in league with the fascists, why did not the militias at the front walk out and leave a hole in the line? And why did the CNT transport-workers, in spite of the strike, continue sending supplies to the front? I cannot, however, say with certainty that a definite revolutionary intention was not in the minds of a few extremists, especially the Bolshevik Leninists (usually called Trotskyists) whose pamphlets were handed around the barricades. What I can say is that the ordinary rank and file behind the barricades never for an instant thought of themselves as taking part in a revolution. We thought, all of us, that we were simply defending ourselves against an attempted coup d’état by the Civil Guards, who had forcibly seized the Telephone Exchange and might seize some more of the workers’ buildings if we did not show ourselves willing to fight. My reading of the situation, derived from what people were actually doing and saying at the time, is this.

The workers came into the streets in a spontaneous defensive movement, and they only consciously wanted two things: Telephone Exchange and the disarming of the hated Civil Guards. In addition there was the resentment caused by the growing poverty in Barcelona and the luxurious life lived by the bourgeoisie. But it is probable that the opportunity to overthrow the Catalan Government existed if there had been a leader to take advantage of it. It seems to be widely agreed that on the third day the workers were in a position to take control of the city; certainly the Civil Guards were greatly demoralised and were surrendering in large numbers. And though the Valencia Government could send fresh troops to crush the workers (they did send 6,000 Assault Guards when the fighting was over), they could not maintain those troops in Barcelona if the transport workers chose not to supply them. But in fact no resolute revolutionary leadership existed. The Anarchist leaders disowned the whole thing and said “Go back to work,” and the POUM. leaders took an uncertain line. The orders sent to us at the POUM barricades, direct from the POUM leadership, were to stand by the CNT, but not to fire unless we were fired on ourselves or our buildings attacked. (I personally was fired at a number of times, but never fired back.) Consequently, as food ran short, the workers began to trickle back to work; and, of course, once they were safely dispersed, the reprisals began.

The enormous majority of the people behind the barricades were ordinary CNT workers. And this point is of importance, for it was as a scapegoat for the May riots that the POUM was recently suppressed; the four hundred or more POUM supporters who are in the filthy verminous Barcelona jails at this moment, are there ostensibly for their share in the May riots. It is worth pointing, therefore, to two good reasons why the POUM were not and could not have been the prime movers. In the first place, the POUM was a very small party. If one throws in Party members, militiamen on leave, and helpers and sympathisers of all kinds, the number of POUM supporters on the streets could not have been anywhere near ten thousand — probably not five thousand; but the disturbances manifestly involved scores of thousands of people. Secondly, there was a general or nearly general strike for several days; but the POUM, as such, had no power to call a strike, and the strike could not have happened if the rank and file of the CNT had not wanted it. As to those involved on the other side, the London Daily Worker had the impudence to suggest in one issue that the “rising” was suppressed by the Popular Army. Everyone in Barcelona knew, and the Daily Worker must have known as well, that the Popular Army remained neutral and the troops stayed in their barracks throughout the disturbances. A few soldiers, however, did take part as individuals; I saw a couple at one of the POUM barricades.

Thirdly, as to the stores of arms which the POUM are supposed to have been hoarding in Barcelona. As a matter of fact the POUM possessed pitifully few weapons, either at the front or in the rear. During the street-fighting I was at all three of the principal strongholds of the POUM, the Executive Building, the Comité Local and the Hotel Falcon. It is worth recording in detail what armaments these buildings contained. There were in all about 80 rifles, some of them defective, besides a few obsolete guns of various patterns, all useless because there were no cartridges for them. Of rifle ammunition there was about 50 rounds for each weapon. There were no machine-guns, no pistols and no pistol ammunition. There were a few cases of hand-grenades, but these were sent to us by the CNT after the fighting started. A highly-placed militia officer afterwards gave me his opinion that in the whole of Barcelona the POUM possessed about a hundred and fifty rifles and one machine-gun. This, it will be seen, was barely sufficient for the armed guards which at the time all parties, PSUC, POUM and CNT-FAI alike, placed on their principal buildings.

In reality, by far the worst offenders in this matter of keeping weapons from the front, were the Government themselves. The infantry on the Aragon front were far worse-armed than an English public school OTC; but the rear-line troops, the Civil Guards, Assault Guards and Carabineros, who were not intended for the front, but were used to “preserve order” (i.e., overawe the workers) in the rear, were armed to the teeth. The troops on the Aragon front had worn-out Mauser rifles, which usually jammed after five shots, approximately one machine-gun to fifty men, and one pistol or revolver to abut thirty men. These weapons, so necessary in trench warfare, were not issued by the Government and could only be bought illegally and with the greatest difficulty. The Assault Guards were armed with brand-new Russian rifles; in addition, every man was issued with an automatic pistol, and there was one sub-machine-gun between ten or a dozen men. These facts speak for themselves. A Government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old, and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear, is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists. Hence the feeble war-policy of the past six months, and hence the compromise with which the war will almost certainly end.

II

When the POUM, the Left Opposition (so-called Trotskyist) off-shoot of Spanish Communism, was suppressed on 16-17 June, the fact in itself surprised nobody. Ever since May, or even since February, it had been obvious that the POUM would be “liquidated” if the Communists could bring it about.

On 16 June Andres Nin, the leader of the party, was arrested in his office. The same night before any proclamation had been made, the police raided the Hotel Falcon, a sort of boarding-house maintained by POUM and used chiefly by militiamen on leave and arrested everybody in it on no particular charge. Next morning the POUM was declared illegal and all POUM buildings, not only offices, bookstalls, etc., but even libraries and sanatoriums for wounded men, were seized by the police. Within a few days all or almost all of the forty members of the Executive Committee were under arrest. One or two who succeeded in going into hiding were made to give themselves up by the device, borrowed from the Fascists, of seizing their wives as hostages. Nin was transferred to Valencia and thence to Madrid, and put on trial for selling military information to the enemy. Needless to say the usual “confessions”, mysterious letters written in invisible ink, and other “evidence” were forthcoming in such profusion as to make it reasonably likely that they had been prepared beforehand.

Meanwhile, the rank and file of the Party, not merely party members, but soldiers in the POUM militia and sympathisers and helpers of all kinds, were being thrown into prison as fast as the police could lay hands on them. Probably it would be impossible to get hold of accurate figures, but there is reason to think that during the first week there were 400 arrests in Barcelona alone; certainly the jails were so full that large numbers of prisoners had to be confined in shops and other temporary dumps. So far as I could discover, no discrimination was made in the arrests between those who had been concerned in the May riots and those who had not. In effect, the outlawry of the POUM was made retrospective; the POUM was now illegal, and therefore one was breaking the law by having ever belonged to it. The police even went to the length of arresting the wounded men in the sanatoriums. Among the prisoners in one of the jails I saw, for instance, two men of my acquaintance with amputated legs; also a child of not more than twelve years of age.

One has got to remember, too, just what imprisonment means in Spain at this moment. Apart from the frightful overcrowding of the temporary jails, the insanitary conditions, the lack of light and air and the filthy food, there is the complete absence of anything that we should regard as legality. There is, for instance, no nonsense about Habeas Corpus. According to the present law, or at any rate the present practice, you can be imprisoned for an indefinite time not merely without being tried but even without being charged; and until you have been charged the authorities can, if they choose, keep you “incommunicado” — that is, without the right to communicate with a lawyer or anyone else in the outside world. It is easy to see how much the “confessions” obtained in such circumstances are worth.

But perhaps the most odious feature of the whole business was the fact that all news of what had happened was deliberately concealed, certainly for five days, and I believe for longer, from the troops on the Aragon front. As it happened, I was at the front from 15 to 20 June. I had got to see a medical board and in doing so to visit various towns behind the front line, Sietamo, Barbastro, Monzon, etc. In all these places the POUM militia headquarters, Red Aid centres and the like were functioning normally, and as far down the line as Lerida (only about 100 miles from Barcelona) and as late as June 20, not a soul had heard that the POUM had been suppressed. All word of it had been kept out of the Barcelona papers, although, of course, the Valencia papers (which do not get to the Aragon front) were flaming with the story of Nin’s “treachery”. Together with a number of others I had the disagreeable experience of getting back to Barcelona to find that the POUM had been suppressed in my absence. Luckily I was warned just in time and managed to make myself scarce, but other were not so fortunate. Every POUM militiaman who came down the line at this period had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — a really pleasant reception after three or four months in the front line.

The POUM was by far the smallest of the revolutionary parties, and its suppression affects comparatively few people. Nevertheless, its suppression is symptomatically important. To begin with it should make clear to the outside world what was already obvious to many observers in Spain, that the present Government has more points of resemblance to fascism than points of difference. (This does not mean that it is not worth fighting for as against the more naked fascism of Franco and Hitler. I myself had grasped by May the Fascist tendency of the Government, but I was willing to go back to the front and in fact did so.) Secondly, the elimination of the POUM gives warning of the impending attack upon the Anarchists. These are the real enemy whom the Communists fear as they never feared the numerically insignificant POUM. The anarchist leaders have now had a demonstration of methods likely to be used against them; the only hope for the revolution, and probably for victory in the war, is that they will profit by the lesson and get ready to defend themselves.

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