Digital History Seminar: 20th Century Spain

The May Days in Barcelona, 1937

     C.N.T. barricade on the Ramblas
Barcelona, May 1937.
The May Days were a period of street fighting and civil unrest in Barcelona, Catalonia in May of 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The violence was an occurrence of the factionalism that was rife in the Popular Front Government of the Genralitat of Catalonia. This was most acute between the Anarchists and the Communists, and resulted from power struggles inside the Popular Front government and will be discussed at further length in the next section. The fighting that occurred on the Barcelona streets from May third through May seventh resulted in an estimated 500 deaths and over 1000 wounded[1]. The best known account of the May Days was written by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. In this book Orwell, who was present for these events, gives an  eyewitness accounting of the street fighting and its aftermath. Over the years many historians, politicians, and the general public have cast doubt as to the veracity of Orwell's account. Many claim that his account is unfair to the Communist Party due to Orwell's personal biases. This project is an attempt to glean the facts from as many sources as possible and ascertain whether Orwell's critics are right or whether in fact Orwell gave a faithful accounting of the events he witnessed in Barcelona.
      When George Orwell described his time in Spain there were two distinct periods. The time before he left for the front, and when he came back to Barcelona on leave. When he speaks of his arrival in Barcelona in December of 1936 he speaks with a sense of awe. Like a man who is seeing something he was not meant to see. He describes the way everyone called one another comrade and the ease with which people spoke to one another. In particular he noted the use of the informal Spanish greeting everyone now used, and how everyone now wore the workers overalls. He called Barcelona a workers city[2].

     In order to give a good accounting of the May Days and the aftermath one first has to look at the events leading up to the violence. The political situation in Catalonia in particular. The Genralitat, which was the Catalonian regional government set up in 1932 under the Autonomy Statute, was trying to reassert central authority after the initial chaos of the Nationalist revolt[3]. This was a Popular Front government like that of the central Republican government of Spain and was quasi-independent, meaning they were part of the Spanish Republic but ran their own affairs. This is important to note as it plays a large role in why the Catalan government and police force tried so hard to quell the violence that occurred. They feared the Republican government would step in and send in Republican troops threatening Catalan independence.

     Catalonia, in late '36 and early '37, was glutted by refugees from Madrid and from the North as well. The war was causing shortages of food and other necessities as it was, but when you add to this already volatile situation thirty to forty thousand refugees the situation was grim indeed. In 1936 and early 1937 the C.N.T., an anarcho-syndicalist trade union, was the dominating force in Catalan politics.[4]. They were already, at the start of the war a very powerful force in the government. The C.N.T. was responsible for setting up food distribution for the poor, unemployed, and refugee population during the crisis in the winter of 1936 and 1937, making them even more popular with the working classes in Barcelona. The C.N.T. along with the P.O.U.M., a dissident communist party formed in 1935, tried to implement a food rationing program as well. This was opposed and blocked by the P.S.U.C., which was the United Socialist Party of Catalonia and was the official communist party of Catalonia. The P.S.U.C. and the E.R.C. or Esquera Repubicana de Catalunya, which represented the Catalan left and was fiercely nationalist, were afraid of the power that the C.N.T. and the P.O.U.M. were gaining in Catalonia[5]. The U.G.T. or the Union General de Trabajadores, which was a trade union for small businesses especially stall owners were also against the rationing of food because it interfered with their profits. The U.G.T. then were natural allies of the P.S.U.C. and the E.R.C. The political system in Catalonia was in a very volatile position before the May Days began and upcoming events would bring these tensions to a head[5].

     In the early months of 1937 food shortages led to large scale demonstrations against the Genralitat's policy regarding the shortages of food and the tremendous rise in food prices. Many of the protests were orchestrated by the C.N.T., F.A.I., and P.O.U.M., non of which were great supporters of the Genralitat, and were especially leery of the rising power of the P.S.U.C. inside the Genralitat. Both the Genralitat and the P.S.U.C. were trying to re-consolidate the states power after the vacuum created in the early days of Nationalist revolution, and the power of the workers groups like the C.N.T. were standing in the way of this consolidation. In their efforts to consolidate Genralitat political power the government consolidated all the various civil guard units, like the assault guard and the Republican Guards into one single body, a Catalan National Police[6]. The Genralitat also forbade any members of the trade unions or militias to join this force[7]. This was a serious move against the workers groups and was directed against the C.N.T. and the P.O.U.M., but the worst was yet to come for those who found themselves on the wrong side of the Genralitat.
      On March 12, 1937 the Republican Spanish National government sent out the order for all political organizations, workers patrol groups, militias, and any individual workers to give up all weapons in their possession[8]. Because of this action and the support it received the C.N.T. members of the Genralitat left the government causing the coalition to collapse, but when the Catalan cabinet was re-formed in the days following power remained in the same hands, and the C.N.T. had effectively lost all power in the Genralitat. The C.N.T., F.A.I., and P.O.U.M. were now powerless to stop the Genralitat in collaboration with the Comintern controlled P.S.U.C. from their consolidation of government controls. In addition to these political and police maneuvers was the governments stripping of the C.N.T. and F.A.I. power in the factories. With the help of the P.S.U.C. and the U.G.T. the Genralitat began to erode the power of the anarchists in the factories. Ultimately the Catalan Genralitat finally resorted to sending in their new Catalan police forces, dominated by the P.S.U.C. and U.G.T., into the factories to break up the votes held by the workers effectively ending C.N.T. power within the factories and thus their control over industrial workers and the price controls and export of goods outside Spain. This was achieved with the aid of the Central Republican government of Spain, who needed to control the export trade more firmly to continue the war effort[9].

     Orwell returned to Barcelona in late April of 1937 on leave due to a wound received while at the front. Upon first arriving he noticed the changes that had occurred in the four months he had been away. The workers city that had so captivated him had disappeared, gone were the "ubiquitous workers overalls", tailored suits had come back and the war seemed a long way away. The revolutionary fervor that had pervaded the city had disappeared and been replaced by the dull wish that the war and privations would just end. Barcelona had become a normal city in the short time he had been away. He notes though that he could feel a seething undercurrent of internal strife. The struggles between the anarchists and communists had become more important than the war itself[10].

     In April of 1937 the Catalan government began to actively enforce the disarming of the Catalan workers. The Police began to disarm the workers wherever they found them, unless of course they were outnumbered by the workers. In which case there was often violence between the Catalan police and the political parties and trade unions. With tensions rising to boiling point the Genralitat ordered that the May Day(May 1st) workers demonstrations be called off. Immediately following this move, on Monday May 3,1937, a unit of the Catalan police arrived at the Barcelona central telephone exchange with the goal of removing the C.N.T. militia that held the building. This was the final act that culminated in the violence that followed during the May Days[11].

Orwell's Account of the May Days

      In the opening hours of the fighting confusion reigned amongst the P.O.U.M. militiamen, there were only rumors. It had all begun with an attack on the C.N.T. by the civil guards. No one in those early hours believed it was a government initiative, but had been an independent act of the civil guard.
      In Orwell's opinion the May Days were simply a struggle between the communists and the anarchists. The true power in Catalonia lay with the P.S.U.C. and their allies. Against them were arrayed the anarchists of the C.N.T, and the dissident communists of the P.O.U.M. The P.S.U.C. controlled the Genralitat and in order to maintain that control they had to disarm the anarchists.

Monday May 3rd-  In Orwell's accounting of events a friend told him that he had heard that shots were being fired at the Telephone Exchange. Later that day while on a walk sometime between 3 and 4 o'clock Orwell heard shots fired and saw anarchists firing at someone on the Ramblas, a central boulevard that crossed through Barcelona, "It's started", he said to himself, without much surprise. He ran from there to the P.O.U.M. headquarters that was also located on the Ramblas. He went to the hotel Falcon, across the street from the P.O.U.M. Comite Local, where the P.O.U.M. had hidden there weapons. Civil Guards were stationed on roof tops all across the Ramblas. The fear was that the P.O.U.M. headquarters would be stormed. He estimated that in the hotel Falcon and the Comite Local there were around 300 militia.

Tuesday May 4th- The Civil Guards had control of a building across the street, the Cafe Mocha. Half a mile away there were two buildings directly opposite each other, one controlled by the U.G.T. and the other by the C.N.T.. The firing from these two buildings was incessant. Barricades were being erected at the hotel Falcon and the Comite Local, and the Civil Guards at the Cafe Mocha were erecting their own barricades as well.

Wednesday May 5th-  Rumors began to spread amongst the P.O.U.M. on the barricades that the government was sending 6,000 Assault Guard troops from Valencia to take control of Barcelona. On the same day the Anarchists offered to end the fighting if the Genralitat would leave their positions around the Telephone Exchange and stop the food profiteering. The Genralitat refused and the fighting continued. Later in the day rumors began to circulate that the Spanish central government was outlawing the P.O.U.M. Already, this early the fighting the P.O.U.M. were sure they were going to be scapegoated for the fighting in Barcelona.

Thursday May 6th- Orwell, from his position, believes a truce may have been called. The firing had died down even in the U.G.T. and C.N.T. positions down the road, and some shops even reopened. After a few hours the firing between the U.G.T. and the C.N.T. began again with the same intensity that had typified their position throughout the conflict.

Friday May 7th- Troops arrive from Valencia and the government orders everyone to go home, and warned that anyone found with a gun would be arrested on sight. With food running short everywhere many left their barricades. The Civil Guards at the Cafe Mocha and elsewhere stayed at their barricades as they were being provisioned by the Genralitat. Things began to return to normal, the barricades remained but most were now unmanned. Only the Civil Guards and the P.O.U.M. remained at their barricades. The trains began to run again for the first time since the street fighting had started. Orwell notices that the anarchist flag no longer flew over the Telephone Exchange. It had been replaced by the Catalan national flag, "The workers had lost." That evening the Assault Guard troops from Valencia began to be seen patrolling the streets.

Saturday May 8th- Assault Guard troops were seen everywhere, "Walking the streets like conquerors", all very well armed with the latest weapons from Russia. The kind of weapons Orwell noted were never given to the militia on the front. Only the Regular Army and Civil Guards got the new Russian weapons.

As the fighting ended the Civil Guards immediately began confiscating the C.N.T.'s weapons and occupying their strongholds and tearing down the barricades. The barricades of the P.S.U.C. and U.G.T. were left and they still retained their weapons.

In the days immediately following the May Days the anarchist papers were censored, while the P.S.U.C. papers remained unmolested and demanded the suppression of the P.O.U.M. They denounced the P.O.U.M. as fascist fifth columnists in the pay of Franco. The Civil Guards had thrown many anarchists in prisons where they were kept without trial. The Civil Guards were arresting foreigners with questionable affiliations and paranoia was gripping the city, especially amongst those in the militias, and the P.O.U.M.

As of Orwell's writing of Homage to Catalonia, six months after his return to England most of the P.O.U.M. leaders were still held in prison. The Spanish government had had by vote decided to free all anti-fascist prisoners by a 5-2 vote of the cabinet. The two dissenting votes were those of the communist P.S.U.C. on the cabinet. Even after the vote was cast the P.O.U.M. leadership was still held in prison. The prisoners were held by the P.S.U.C. controlled police force and the Spanish government was could not afford to alienate the P.S.U.C. and their Russian backers[12].

The Spanish public was fed propaganda by the communist press both at home and abroad, and the anarchist newspapers were censored following the May Days violence. It was claimed that the anarchist and P.O.U.M. militias left their posts when the fighting began in Barcelona, and that they did not engage in active offensive operations. The militias contended that they were not supplied sufficiently for offensive operations. As to the speculation that the P.O.U.M. and C.N.T. militias abandoned their posts when the May Days began, this has been proven wholly untrue. The anarchist battalion commander on the Huesca front, Rovira and a contingent of P.O.U.M. leaders met with Colonel Alfonso Reyes and Joaquin Vila, The Catalan Government Commissioner for Internal Security. This group of men came to a well publicized agreement wherein the militias would remain at their posts at the front as long as government troops were removed from outside the C.N.T. and P.O.U.M. headquarters in Barcelona[13].

On June 16, 1937 the P.O.U.M. was made illegal, the remaining leaders arrested, and Andreu Nin was murdered in Prison.

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