Federica Montseny

Federica Montseny

Federica Montseny was born in Madrid, Spain, on 12th February, 1905. Her parents were the co-editors of the anarchists journal, La Revista Blanca (1898-1905). In 1912 the family returned to Catalonia and farmed land just outside Barcelona. Later they established a company that specialized in publishing libertarian literature.

Montseny joined the anarchist labour union, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). As well as working in the family publishing business she contributed articles to anarchist journals such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad and Nueva Senda. In her writings Montseny called for women's emancipation in Spain.

In 1921 Miguel Primo de Rivera banned the CNT. It now became an underground organization and in 1927 Montseny joined the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI).

The Antifascist Militias Committee was set up in Barcelona on 24th July 1936. The committee immediately sent Buenaventura Durruti and 3,000 Anarchists to Aragón in an attempt to take the Nationalist held Saragossa. At the same time Montseny established another anarchist militia, the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty).

In the first few weeks of the Spanish Civil War an estimated 100,000 men joined Anarcho-Syndicalists militias. Anarchists also established the Iron Column, many of whose 3,000 members were former prisoners. In Guadalajara, Cipriano Mera, leader of the CNT construction workers in Madrid, formed the Rosal Column.

In November 1936 Francisco Largo Caballero appointed Montseny as Minister of Health. In doing so, she became the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion.

During the Spanish Civil War the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT), the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and the Worker's Party (POUM) played an important role in running Barcelona. This brought them into conflict with other left-wing groups in the city including the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the Communist Party (PCE).

On the 3rd May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police, ordered the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard to take over the Telephone Exchange, which had been operated by the CNT since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Members of the CNT in the Telephone Exchange were armed and refused to give up the building. Members of the CNT, FAI and POUM became convinced that this was the start of an attack on them by the UGT, PSUC and the PCE and that night barricades were built all over the city.

Fighting broke out on the 4th May. Later that day the anarchist ministers, Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, arrived in Barcelona and attempted to negotiate a ceasefire. When this proved to be unsuccessful, Juan Negrin, Vicente Uribe and Jesus Hernández called on Francisco Largo Caballero to use government troops to takeover the city. Largo Caballero also came under pressure from Luis Companys, the leader of the PSUC, not to take this action, fearing that this would breach Catalan autonomy.

On 6th May death squads assassinated a number of prominent anarchists in their homes. The following day over 6,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia and gradually took control of Barcelona. It is estimated that about 400 people were killed during what became known as the May Riots.

These events in Barcelona severely damaged the Popular Front government. Communist members of the Cabinet were highly critical of the way Francisco Largo Caballero handled the May Riots. President Manuel Azaña agreed and on 17th May he asked Juan Negrin to form a new government. Montseny, along with other anarchist ministers, Juan Garcia Oliver, Juan López and Juan Peiró now resigned from the government.

Negrin's government now attempted to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Republican Army. At first the Anarcho-Syndicalists resisted and attempted to retain hegemony over their units. This proved impossible when the government made the decision to only pay and supply militias that subjected themselves to unified command and structure.

Negrin also began appointing members of the Communist Party (PCE) to important military and civilian posts. This included Marcelino Fernandez, a communist, to head the Carabineros. Communists were also given control of propaganda, finance and foreign affairs. The socialist, Luis Araquistain, described Negrin's government as the "most cynical and despotic in Spanish history."

At the end of the Spanish Civil War Montseny fled to France. She now led the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) in exile until her arrest in 1942. She was imprisoned in Perigueux and Limoges during the Second World War and was not released until the liberation of France in 1944.

Montseny moved to Toulouse where she published the anarchist newspaper, L'Espoir. Unlike most other exiles, she decided not to return home after the death of General Francisco Franco and the re-introduction of democracy in Spain.

Federica Montseny died in 1994.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederica Montseny, speech while Minister of Health (1937)

Prostitution presents a moral, economic and social problem that cannot be resolved juridically. Prostitution will come to an end when sexual relations are liberalized; when Christian and bourgeois morality is transformed; when women have professions and social opportunities to secure their livelihood and that of their children; when society is set up in such a way that no one remains excluded; when society can be organized to secure life and rights for all human beings.

(2) Frederica Montseny, article in La Revista Blanca about the use of violence during the Spanish Civil War (30th July 1937)

We have confirmed something we only knew in theory, namely that revolution, in which uncontrolled and uncontrollable forces operate imperiously, is blind and destructive, grandiose and cruel. How much is wrecked in the heat of the struggle and in the blind fury of the storm. Men are as we have always known them, neither better nor worse from the hearts of rogues there springs a latent honesty, from the depths of honest men there emerges a brutish appetite - a thirst for extermination, a desire for blood.