Barcelona was the capital of autonomous Catalonia and its parliament was known as the Generalitat. This independence was taken away by the Spanish central government in October 1934.
On the 19th July, 1936, members of the Anarcho-Syndicalists (CNT) and the Worker's Party (POUM), ensured the failure of the military uprising in Barcelona. The victors immediately organized a militia committee with representatives from all the major parties that supported the Second Republic. The provisional government extended the power of the Generalitat to foreign trade, banking controls, defence and property.
In May 1937 the CNT and POUM were suppressed by the Assault Guard, the Civil Guard and the NKVD in Barcelona. As a result, the Communist Party became the dominant force in the city. The new government headed by Juan Negrin dismantled the collectivization and reduced the powers of the Generalitat.
In the final stages of the Spanish Civil War Barcelona was heavily bombed by the Condor Legion. When General Francisco Franco took control of the city he ordered the removal of Catalan street names and prohibited the use of the Catalan language.
Certainly there are fewer well-dressed people than in ordinary times, but there are still lots of them especially women, who display their good clothes in the streets and cafes without hesitation or fear, in complete contrast to thoroughly proletarian Barcelona. Because of the bright colors of the better-dressed female element, Madrid has a much less lugubrious aspect than even the Ramblas in Barcelona. Cafes are full, in Madrid as in Barcelona, but here they are filled by a different type of people, journalists. State employees, all sorts of intelligentsia; the working class element is still in a minority. One of the most striking features is the strong militarization of the armed forces. Workers with rifles, but in their ordinary civilian clothes, are quite exceptional here. The streets and cafes are full of militia, all of them dressed in their monos, the new dark blue uniforms; most of them do not wear any party initials on their caps. We are under the sway of the liberal Madrid government, which favors the army system as against the militia system favored by Barcelona and the anarchists. Churches are closed but not burned here. Most of the requisitioned cars are being used by Government institutions, not political parties or trade unions. Here the governmental element is much more in evidence. There does not even exist, in Madrid, a central political committee. Very little expropriation seems to have taken place. Most shops carry on without even control, let alone expropriation. To sum up, Madrid gives, much more than Barcelona, the impression of a town in social revolution.
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.
Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers' State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers' side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
We left our dank dungeon in a troop train bound for Albacete, base of the International Brigade. Our route took us through Barcelona and Valencia and we stopped at all the small towns. At each station, crowds of Spaniards met us and presented us with huge baskets of oranges, the men cheering, the women throwing kisses, the children chortling with delight. Our few possessions were soon handed out as souvenirs.
At Barcelona we disembarked for an overnight stay and paraded through the city to our barracks in a sort of triumphal procession. Barcelona was impressive, clean and modern, with its own type of rococo architecture. Propaganda posters had been developed to a fine art in Spain and they were plastered everywhere, displaying power and vividness. In addition to the posters, huge slogans had been painted in red on every wall, shouting "Muerte al Fascismo" (Death to Fascism), "Viva Espana Popular" (Long Live People's Spain), "Viva Rusia" (Long Live Russia).
I made a tour of the Barcelona churches and Rightist centers which the Left extremists had pillaged and burned since my previous visit. A large number of churches and convents had been destroyed during the demonstrations following the Left election victory in February. The work of destruction had been completed during the week preceding my arrival. Only the blackened walls remained of the historic religious buildings. The statues and paintings had been destroyed or removed, the altars ripped out, the stained-glass windows broken. The burial vaults in the floors of some of the churches had been forced open and the century-old mummified bodies of nuns and priests had been removed from their mouldy resting-places. On the steps of the Carmelite church were arrayed a dozen or more of the skeletons of nuns in standing and reclining postures.
The red and black flag of the Anarchists was everywhere - hung from balconies, suspended from cords strung across the thoroughfares and fastened to sticks wired to the fronts of commandeered automobiles. No attempt was being made to police the city. Scowling through their week-old beards, the militia, dressed in blue overalls or simply in denim trousers and dirty shirts, with red and black neckerchiefs about their throats, were as thick as flies. Lounging here and there or speeding through the streets in their requisitioned private cars with the black snouts of submachine guns protruding over the window sills, these Catalonian Anarchists looked fierce enough to startle even the directors of a Hollywood mob scene. Occasionally a shot was heard as a rifle in inexperienced hands was discharged.
A first-hand account of the fierce fighting in Barcelona, in which 500 are stated to have been killed and 3,000 wounded, is given in messages sent over the frontier today by Renter's Barcelona correspondent. The fighting resolved itself into a series of the most bloody street battles, in which loyal troops, assisted by armed civilians, fought hand to hand with the rebels, who attacked repeatedly.
'The worst day was Sunday,' says the message. 'By dusk that evening at least 300 lay dead. At one time bodies were lying piled on the steps of an underground railway station. The firing was continuous from early morning. Machine-guns and artillery were used. The Colon Hotel in Catalonia Square was shelled in an attempt to dislodge the rebels, who were in force there. The noise was tremendous. Besides the firing, aeroplanes roared continuously overhead. Taxis and private cars were commandeered to transport the wounded to hospital. There was a continuous stream of such improvised ambulances. The hospitals were full to overflowing, and an appeal was sent to all private doctors to come and attend patients.'
The correspondent goes on to describe the scenes that followed the victory of the Government forces. 'Bands of anarchists and Communists raged through the town sacking, looting and setting fire to every church and convent and other religious buildings. No fewer than twenty convents and churches were razed to the ground or seriously damaged, and only the famous cathedral remains intact, in one religious seminary, it is stated, many priests were put to death.
It is believed that the clergy were able to get away most of the church treasures before the looters arrived. The mob, drunk with victory, afterwards paraded the streets of the town attired in the robes of ecclesiastical authorities and other officials.
'After the fighting on Sunday and Monday the streets were littered with the dead bodies of men and horses. It was only after the rebels had suffered tremendous losses that General Coded, their commander, surrendered, and fighting continued spasmodically in the streets for some time afterwards. Police, however, mounted guns on the stone setts of the squares and gradually secured command of the situation.'
It is in Barcelona that the full force of the anarchist revolution becomes apparent. Their initials, CNT and FAI, are everywhere. They have taken over all the hotels, restaurants, cafes, trains, taxis, and means of communication, as well as all theatres, cinemas, and places of amusement. Their first act was to abolish the tip as being incompatible with the dignity of those who receive it, and to attempt to give one is the only act, short of making the Fascist salute, that a foreigner can be disliked for.
While the war was at its height several of us were invited to visit Spain to see how things were going with the Republican Army. The fiery little Ellen Wilkinson met us in Paris, and was full of excitement and assurance that the Government would win. Included in the party were Jack Lawson, George Strauss, Aneurin Bevan, Sydney Silverman, and Hannen Swaffer. We went by train to the border at Perpignan, and thence by car to Barcelona where Bevan left for another part of the front.
The reception we received from both officials and the people was pathetic in its enthusiasm. I had the disturbing impression that they thought it only needed the gesture of a few visits by foreign Socialists to make victory certain. Conditions in the city were bad. Food was very scarce and the people were severely rationed. We were given rooms in the best hotel in the city, but with all the luxury of the accommodation there was hardly any food. The municipal authorities in Barcelona invited us to a dinner attended by all the prominent people of the town. They did their best with the food, though it consisted, of course, of the traditional Spanish dish of fish, shellfish, and vegetables mixed with rice and cooked in oil. In normal times a modest amount is quite palatable, but they were short of oil, and what they had was rancid. Where ever we went it was the same, and I lived most of the time on oranges and water with what bread I could get.
We drove along the Mediterranean coast through scenery of unsurpassed beauty, marred by the appalling poverty of the villagers, obviously in need of food and dressed in rags. This was not so much a symptom of war as the normal condition of the people. In the larger cities, such as Valencia, the stench of the slums was worse than anything I have met in the Middle East.
I left Paris on January 15th (1937), took train to Toulouse and from there flew to Barcelona. I stayed in Barcelona for only one day. The city presented a depressing picture. There was no bread, no milk, no meat to be had, and there were long queues outside the shops. The Anarchists blamed the Catalan Government for the food shortage and organised an intensive campaign of political agitation; the windows of the trams were plastered with their leaflets. The tension in the city was near danger-point. It looked as though Spain were not only to be the stage for the dress-rehearsal of the second world war, but also for the fratricidal struggle within the European Left.
When the siren sounded again - this time meaning release - we went out, Herb Matthews, Robert Capa, Ed and I, to see the damage. We found one building which had been hit in the second bombing - twisted and mutilated - piles of broken glass and debris in front of it - a huge crater in front of the doorway where the bomb had fallen - a water main cracked. Everywhere around the building - all the houses had piles of glass and debris being swept out of them - the concussion often creates terrific damage - in all the little streets off that main street on which the building was had the little piles of broken glass and debris lining them - the gutters were covered with brick and mortar. We drove on past the Bank of Spain - the bomb had fallen right clean through it - we went down to the port where huge craters showed where bombs had fallen, breaking water pipes; crews were feverishly at work repairing the damage - there was no sign of panic or terror anywhere - people went about their daily tasks, walked in the very spots where bombs had fallen - sat in the cafes along the waterfront - sat on the benches along the streets. We talked to one man (Ed wrote about him in his dispatch) - he told us most of the people had spent the night in the refugios - thereby lessening the toll of lives. He was calm when he told us about his demolished house - a smile on his face when he told us he had been able to save his family and then the full proof of what these people are made of when he said to us in farewell "I would invite you to my house - but you see, it isn't there anymore."
When I first walked into the streets of Barcelona I was amazed at what I saw. When we read about Spain in the newspapers, articles, and books, we read of the front, of cities bombed, and I came expecting to find a warlike - or what I thought was warlike - atmosphere over everything and everybody. Here in Barcelona, the city goes on living its life - shops do business, people work and sit in the cafes. When you are in the city for a while you begin to see the effects of war. You see that there aren't many young men in the streets - and if there are they are in uniform, home on leave or recovering from wounds. You see the wrecked buildings where bombs have fallen - and you see the women and the kids, tattered, ragged, and hungry. But you see too that everywhere are a people who are fighting for their lives, their country - the raised fist which greets you in Salud is not just a gesture - it means life and liberty being fought for and a greeting of solidarity with the democratic peoples of the world. Barcelona is a beautiful city - surrounded by hills and mountains - an ever blue sky - palm trees lining the broad avenues - a city which in peacetime must have been a joy to live in. And the people - how can I tell you how wonderful they are - how truly a beautiful people the Spanish are. They are an intelligent people and an understanding people, and even now, in midst of their war, the education of its people goes on - schools for kids, girls from the Basque country and Andalucia who three months ago couldn't read, now holding down leading and important jobs in Government agencies.
I drove up from Malaga and joined our troops before they entered Barcelona. No attempt had been made to defend the city. Its inhabitants were tired of fighting, sick of their rulers, and hungry for food and peace. There had been the usual amount of looting and much senseless destruction. Santa Maria del Mar, a priceless jewel of Gothic art, had been burnt at the outbreak of war; San Pedro de las Puellas, the earliest Christian monument in Barcelona, had experienced the same fate. The stench was awful. Unswept for years, the streets were full of autumn leaves and garbage, part of the accumulated filth which the Reds bequeathed to every town that they occupied for any amount of time. Near the port, at the eastern end of the Ramblas, I saw houses damaged by bombs which had been aimed at ships anchored in the harbour. Apart from this and from the destruction wrought upon it by the Reds, Barcelona was unharmed.
Large quantities of food, rushed up in endless lines of lorries from happier parts of Spain, were being handed out by smiling, well-scrubbed girls in the blue uniforms of the Falange. My job was to accommodate the legion of civil servants, businessmen, and employees, already in Barcelona and eager to set the city on its feet. Hotels had to be staffed, cleaned up, and supplied with food and all the necessary requisites. The record of their personnel had to be investigated, for it would have been senseless to assign positions of trust to possible devotees of murder, arson, and loot. To have fought against us was one thing; to be a criminal was another. The dust at the Ritz, the best hotel in the town, was inches thick. I told the manager to summon as many char-women as he could find, for I needed them all. Once they arrived I reviewed them, complete with brooms, mops and pails. 'Has the day at last arrived for us to resume scrubbing floors?' one of them asked me. 'It certainly has,' I replied. 'Thank God for that!' she answered, throwing up her hands to the skies.
As we were coming out of Spain - the Fascists were getting to Barcelona as we were getting out - I was with the Spanish surgeon and some of the others as we came through Barcelona. We found a whole lot of children, oh, dozens of them, with their hands off, completely off. The Italians had dropped anti-personnel bombs marked 'Chocolate'. The children were picking up these things - they hadn't had chocolate for years - and they just blew their hands off. This Spanish surgeon that I worked with, he was in tears. We all were. This sort of thing was so horrible. It left a big impression on me.
I am sure that the whole of Great Britain will have shuddered with horror on reading the news of the most recent bombardments of Barcelona.
But I can assure you, after having visited the entire city in which two thousand people have been killed and an equal number wounded, that the most terrible predictions of the coming aerial warfare have been converted here into the most abominable reality.
The Spanish people turn towards Great Britain and ask you to raise your voice against the extermination of the civilian population of Barcelona and against a policy which prevents the Spanish Government from acquiring the means necessary to defend itself from this murder of more than a thousand women and children in a single day.
The air raids carried out by the 'Nationalist' air force on military objectives in Barcelona have been reported with notorious mendacity by the 'Red' press and part of the foreign press, too. The 'Nationalist' air force has sought only to destroy strictly military objectives.
'Red' barbarity has converted the district situated in the centre of towns into huge stores of explosives and war material. 'Red' propaganda states that some of the 'Nationalist' bombs fell in the Cataluna Square, on the underground station of the Metro, and the main northern railway station.
It omitted to say, however, that these two points had been converted into huge munition dumps, a fact which is proved by the several explosions which took place after the falling of the bombs. These explosions caused the collapse of several buildings such as the Barcelona Theatre and others in the Cataluna Square.
We regret the victims caused amongst the civilian population, but responsibility for these rests with the 'Red' authorities who, violating all the laws of humanity and warfare, have placed huge powder dumps in the middle of large cities.
Most of Barcelona's population were gathered around the big street Diagonal. I think there were a million people there. The city had been bombed every single hour for months. But this time the Republican airplanes were up in the air, patrolling. There was a troop-parade. There were "carabineros" in their green uniforms, Guardia Nacional and different fractions from the army, tank-troops… while the Air Force was roaring by above. Then the International troops came, straight from the front, in their shabby army-pants and shirts, not at all as well groomed as the others from the frontline. But then the crowd went wild. People were cheering and shouting. The women brought their children and handed them over to the soldiers in the International Brigade. They wanted to give them the best thing they had. It was a fantastic sight.
The base for our visit was Barcelona, and we travelled there via Calais, Paris and Perpignan. At one point, our night train came to a juddering halt. Opening the window, we discovered that a wheel had come off, but not from our carriage. We arrived late at Perpignan, our destination in France. After a superb lunch in a restaurant overlooking the main square of the town, we were then driven at breakneck speed along the coast, a lot of it at quite a height, on the winding mountain roads down to Barcelona. We found the capital city of Catalonia in darkness - it was never lit up for fear of air-raids - and settled in to a comfortable hotel. Instructions in our rooms told us to go down to the basement in the event of an air-raid alarm. It was just as well that we did not heed those instructions, opting instead for the excitement of watching the bombers flying past. During one raid, a bomb went straight down the hotel lift shaft, skittling to the bottom and killing all those who had rushed down to the basement shelter.
It took two more months to leave Spain. Transportation had to be arranged for the long voyage back; we had to be outfitted with civilian clothes; the League of Nations had to count us; it was almost more difficult to leave Spain than it had been to get in. Meanwhile, the Spanish people wanted to give us a proper farewell. Fetes and banquets were held everywhere as people showed their gratitude to the 25,000 men from all over the world who had come to help Spain in her hour of need.
The main farewell took place in Barcelona on Oct. 29. For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. Despite the danger of air raids, the entire city turned out. Whatever airforce belonged to the Loyalists, was used to protect Barcelona that day. Happily, the fascists did not show up. It was our day. We paraded ankle-deep in flowers. Women rushed into our lines to kiss us. Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. The people of the city poured out their hearts. Our blood had been shed with theirs. Our dead slept with their dead. We had proved again that all men are brothers. Matthews wrote about this final day, remarking that we did not march with much precision. "They learned to fight before they had time to learn to march."
Finally, on a day in December 1938, we boarded a train near the French frontier and left Spanish soil. The French government sealed our train and we were not permitted to get off until we reached Le Havre and the ship that was waiting to take us home. The Italian and German members of the Brigades were interned in French concentration camps; there they led a miserable existence until World War II freed them and they were able to use the experience of their Spanish days in the various Allied armies which they joined.
Three months after we crossed the Spanish border, and two years and eight months after Franco had begun his revolt, the Republic of Spain fell to the fascists. It was a bleak day for mankind.