Francisco Ponzán Vidal [a tribute]

I could not close this chapter without doing right by one of the most original men I have ever known, one that no other Spanish formation has ever provided to the Libertarian Movement.

Like Evaristo Viñuales and Máximo Franco, both national schoolteachers, Francisco Ponzán was one of the admirable young people who blossomed in Huesca, driven by kindness, wisdom and the exemplary life led by their teacher Ramón Acín who was executed during the early day of the civil war.

As early as 1930 or so, Ponzán was already an outstanding writer. I remember his regular contributions in Tierra y Libertad (Barcelona) in 1932-1936.

When the revolt broke out, Ponzán took up the most dangerous position of them all: as head of the intelligence-gathering and saboteur groups operating inside enemy territory; their daring and repeated feats drew attention. 

The gravitas and serious organization of those groups were such that the High Command, either in Catalonia or in the Centre, was obliged to look to Ponzn’s services if it wanted bona fide intelligence. At the drop of a hat, he could produce sketches outlining the enemy deployment and he could even abduct and smuggle back across the republican lines any officer that the military command might like. (I myself witnessed several such instances).

When the war was over he crossed into France and was placed in the Le Vernet (in the Ariège department) concentration camp, but very soon broke out of the camp and embarked upon a brand-new, lengthy phase of conspiracy. He reorganized his group and placed himself at the disposal of the Organization [the CNT] as regards operations inside Spain.

The groups operating in Barcelona in 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942 were Ponzán’s groups, whose activities we described earlier.

For all his integrity and sangfroid, Ponzán was driven to despair by the arrest, sentencing and executions of lots of militants in September 1939, every man jack of them a member of his groups or working with them. Like the author of this book he felt himself partly responsible for them. In actual fact, those men had been dispatched into Spain without the barest wherewithal required for them to survive and remain safe, as is plain from the correspondence reproduced.

In spite of all that, Ponzán persisted with his activities. Towards the end of 1939 he drafted a comprehensive report on the situation inside Spain, together with a plan of clandestine action. From that eight page report we copy the following:

The fact is that in spite of having thousands of its best men in Spain and in France ready to be of service to their ideas and the revolution, nothing has been done. The entire responsibility for that belongs to the Council (the Libertarian Movement’s Council). That will be looked into some day … But the CNT and FAI may yet take the lead in the fight against Francoism in Spain. And revive lost belief in many a heart. It would not take much to do that when there is no shortage of man-power. England and France are coming to see the seriousness of the Spanish question. Beginning to see Franco as an enemy. The Intelligence Service and the Deuxième Bureau are not unaware that Spain is actively building up her strength with airfields and that includes underground ones being built and her factories are operating flat out. They are not unaware that Germany has her best spy-base in the Peninsula. And they know that her ports service German submarines and her tankers proudly sail from Spanish port to Spanish port.

… The CNT and FAI are still extant and could do a lot to liberate Spain by hoisting the battle colours ahead of anyone else.”

Next, Ponzán set out his scheme for action in Spain, from which I take this extract:

Set aside a portion of the available funding for activity in Spain and commence the action as early as possible.

I realize that those two things will of necessity make you uneasy. You can ensure that the first is properly managed by appointing an energetic administrative treasurer – assuming that one is left – to oversee the spending. As for action and fear of reprisals, even though our best people have already been ‘purged’, we can still mount retaliatory actions by striking blows well aimed at the instigators.

The Organization within Spain can be built on comrades who are already there, with help from a few dozen sent in from exile, setting up comarcal and local action groups, especially in the larger urban centres. Intelligent propaganda can be carried out and at the same time the gear for action readied. All of it within three or four months. After that, each group can work out and work towards their assigned targets. Blowing up radio transmitters and power stations on the same day, say. And putting all train services out of commission by destroying the locomotives. Whilst at the same time circulating manifestoes to make known that our Organization, the strongest the proletariat has ever had, exists. 

I do not wish to go into the detail since this is the over-view. Perhaps we will not be taken seriously – again. But we stand ready to guarantee implementation whenever you please by carrying this scheme out, or part of it, with your assistance, or unaided. We are afraid of nothing save our own consciences and our dead and both of these know that we have nothing with which to reproach ourselves.”

In effect, Ponzán was right when he speculated that “perhaps we will not be taken seriously – again”. The response from the Libertarian Movement’s general secretary to the proposals he was making was absolutely negative.

Needless to say the response from the LM’s Council led to a complete cessation of activity targeting Spain and thus to a standing-down of the groups of Ponzán and the author, putting paid to that phase and abandoning the survivors from that heroic team to their fates.

Not that Ponzán sat on his hands for long. The flames of war in Europe held out the prospect of broad scope for daring and prodigious activity. And he joined the French Resistance, rendering exceptional service there.

One may agree or disagree with certain aspects of Ponzán’s activities at the time, but only the muddle-headed, more or less caught up in collaborating with the Germans, were able to criticize Ponzán for his commitment and huge experience in fighting the German Nazis and Italian fascists in military and conspiratorial terms.

And we know that he smuggled resisters from all over Europe out via Spain to join the Allied armies, or engaged in intelligence-gathering in the Peninsula in order to prove the Franco regime’s connivance and aid to the Axis countries.

And that was not all he did. Above all an anarchist, on his frequent trips into Spain he established connections with the remnants of the Libertarian Movement during 1941-42 and 1943. He helped with its reorganization, with aid to prisoners and aid to comrades being persecuted and to those in need in France. If they were still living Felipe Alaiz and Pierre Besnard could both say something about that, as could lots of other comrades who are still around. And here let us mention the following anecdote: Pierre Besnard gave him a copy of a manifesto Pour assurer la paix [In Order to Guarantee the Peace] to read. With the German Occupation at its height, he could not even dream of having it published since it had to do with remaking the world in the wake of Germany’s defeat in accordance with the principles of libertarian revolutionary syndicalism. Ponzán read the book and he reckoned that it was such an urgent matter for him to make the requisite resources available to Pierre Besnard without delay that the book was published clandestinely. I imagine that it will be included in the libraries of a lot of militants, just as it is in my own. 

In 1942, by arrangement with groups inside Spain, Ponzán drafted a manifesto addressed to the people calling for a Spanish Democratic Alliance (ADE), which we, in conversation with Manuel Buenacasa in Montpellier in 1943 agreed was a good idea. Ponzán was a pioneer. He could see it was the only way to bring Franco’s rule to an end. That manifesto was published and circulated throughout Spain. Unfortunately, no copy ever came into my own hands so it may well have been the first printed text from the Spanish Resistance that eluded me.

I cannot be too precise about the date, but it must have been in early 1942 that delegates from Ponzán’s team held talks in Madrid with what must have been the third post-war National Committee of the CNT, of which Manuel Amil was secretary. Those liaison agents drafted a memo on the outcome of the exchange, which I will nor reprint here due to its tenor and the tone of its radical criticism of those responsible for the exile community’s abandonment of the membership inside Spain and their call for draconian sanctions to be imposed on them. The comrades who delivered that memo to me are still living in France and, whilst we may not see eye to eye on some tactical issues, I know that, as they are honest men, they will not make a liar of me here.

Ponzán and his men pressed on with their intense and daring efforts. It is estimated that they smuggled out upwards of 1,500 antifascists from all over Europe, including Monsieur Blumel, Leon Blum’s one-time secretary, the family of Professor Cathalá, Major Obé, Prince Merode and the Belgian lieutenants Karsgoveer and Leyder and others. 

In the Miranda de Ebro camp alone in 1942 there were 5,000 such people who had crossed the Pyrenees and that is not counting the ones held in Irun, Pamplona, Lérida, Gerona, Figueras, Barcelona, etc.

But the Gestapo was on the alert and was tightening the noose around Ponzán who eventually fell into its clutches. From his solitary punishment cell in the Saint Michel prison in Toulouse, he was still able to find a way of dodging surveillance and of writing several letters that carried morale-boosting messages of hope. This comes from the last letter to which he signed his name and which he addressed to the author from prison, on 22 February 1943:

Dear friend: I have learned of the work your are engaged in in organizational terms and I feel duty bound to set out a few of my views regarding everything that needs doing for the sake of our ideas, today and in the future.

You may well find it odd [illegible here] given my own particular stance regarding lots of comrades who, due to a lack of understanding, have targeted me and conjured up the strained atmosphere around my life. 

My conscience is at ease and I find nothing with which to reproach myself. My critics – unless I die first – will some day be forced to eat their words because truth alone must prevail. And, as an aside, it might not be a bad idea to urge that those who talk for the sake of talking keep quiet, given the suppositions or slanders voiced by enemies who are happy to see us biting lumps out of one another.

1. Don’t go thinking that you can pull off in four days a task that is going to take many months, after a lot of considered thought. 
2. You should steer clear of arriving at accords or resolutions that only the comrades in Spain may and should reach. Confine yourselves to following their lead rather than imposing yours on them. They are the ones who make up the only real Organization and it is for them to pass judgment. Your efforts should be confined to monitoring and maintaining relations and countering the sectarian efforts of our enemies, especially the communists.
3. Do not try to build a mass organization inside Spain, for that would have all the comrades winding up in prison. Leave assemblies and dues payments and propaganda spectaculars to one side.
4. Do what you can to preserve the unity among us all; drop the cabals, so that each and every one of us surrenders a little of our particular aspirations for the common good. There should be only one Organization and a single policy line.

Looking to the future

1. Insist upon the strictest respect for friends. Let no one dare, as they have done thus far, to assume that they are free to censure and criticize anyone in an irresponsible manner. Get on with forming a body made up of someone of the utmost integrity from each Regional and commission him to analyse and sit in judgment of controversial behaviours or personal matters.
2. Lay “sacred principles” to rest and adapt our conduct to the century we live in. Airing our ideas and making everyone take notice. So that he may understand and embrace our ideas in future.
3. Reconcile our craving for freedom with national aspirations; meaning, do not wrap ourselves up in some radical, nonsensical internationalism which is unpopular with most people, and nurture anything good to be found within national feeling.
4. With regard to politics, be uncompromising and keep it out of the Organization, except for municipalities. Insist that the establishment accepts our organization’s control over all basic decision-making affecting the popular interest. 
5. Give pride of place to everything having to do with the Economy, ensuring that the union gradually come to supplant capitalism. For instance, the Construction Union can be run as a collective venture, as can other industries. When it comes to fund-raising, if need be, we can look to State agencies or the private banks.
6. Our Organization should have a single leadership with an executive national committee. Fewer assemblies and greater effectiveness in the implementation of accords.
7. The Organization should be able to count on a strong Defence Committee and an effective intelligence agency that keeps it briefed on all individual and collective activities. 
8. Only congresses have the power to alter the Movement’s guiding lines. We must get one ready for when we return to Spain.
9. See to it that dues payments are done away with. Let any worker coming over to us be issued with a wireless set rather than our demanding money from him.
10. Lay the IWA to rest and set up an international body that every freedom-seeking worker in the world can join.  Bear in mind that all of the internationals are going to emerge from this war discredited. 
Campaign for a broad popular culture; where everyone has the chance to go to university and enter every cultural and further educational institution. 

Capitalism is collapsing, and all the pseudo-revolutionary doctrines with it. We can achieve something positive. Do not embark upon or mortgage our future lightly. Hold on to your independence and, above all, overhaul. Let the peoples see that we are ready to make amendments and jettison whatever we think is nonsensical.

Friends: These are a few of the ideas bubbling away I my head, the fruits of many years spent pondering. I, having had the opportunity to step outside of the boundaries of our house, have discovered that these are basic ideas. Bear in mind that if, in the future, something here is not carried into practice, the peoples and the workers will pay us no heed and we will find ourselves more isolated than we are today and many, such as myself, will embark upon a fresh struggle, an individual struggle, on behalf of himself, his own and whoever else deserves it. 

PONZAN (signed)
22 February 1943 

That letter may very well have been his last communication, written from the Saint Michel prison in Toulouse where the Germans were holding him in strict isolation as they knew and feared his capabilities as a conspirator. When the Germans withdrew from Toulouse they did not forget him and they took him with them, along with a further 50 prisoners.

Every prisoner was murdered and set on fire when they made their first halt in the forests in Buzet about 25 kilometres from Toulouse. Among the ashes a ring was discovered that Ponzán used to wear as a memento and on that basis it was identified by his sister Pilar.

What a pity that the Organization – his organization – failed to harness the dynamism, intelligence and powerful personality of Ponzán! Finding himself side-lined by some of the Organization’s leadership bodies, Ponzán threw himself heart and soul into the fight against a then triumphant fascism. He built up a corps of equally brave militants and told them:

What is at stake today is not the freedom of France and Spain but freedom, culture and world peace.”

So outstanding and acknowledged were the services that Ponzán and his group rendered to the Allies in the fight against Nazism that the British government awarded him His Majesty’s Silver Leaf [possibly the laurel leaf, emblem of the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct: KSL] and the United States government the Medal of Freedom. 

[pp. 78-87]

From the minutes of a large meeting of militants of the Toulouse Local Federation, held on 25 October 1945, to deal with confidential matters relating to the clandestine struggle, let us copy, verbatim, a few of the comments made:

Moriones: Regarding an interview I had with the CNT National Committee for Spain, it was put to me that for the want of 590 pesetas comrade X had been executed and that there were still other comrades on the verge of being executed. On my return to France, I reported to the LM’s National Committee in exile to lobby for funds and aid for the comrades in danger of death. The LM Council told me that I had 8,000 francs to help Spain, but, until such time as its own people had carried out the requisite verifications, they would not hand over a single penny and at no time was this ever done and, of course, the money was never handed over either.

Having gone back again to Spain to explain matters, I was told by comrade López, secretary of the National Committee at the time that ‘the comrades in France have no balls unless they shoot every single member of the Council.’

Ester: After some considerations regarding the reading of a letter sent by the National Committee from Spain, he reiterated what comrade Moriones had just been saying. The letter in question read like this:

Madrid, 21 February 1941. Comrade Celedonio Pérez has been arrested on information received and regrettably we do not have the funds to rescue comrades facing death sentences, Montoliu and Eduardo de Gúzman among them.

They point an accusing finger at those in France who do have the funds for a comfortable exile, whereas they do not even have enough to keep up correspondence with groups of comrades. The entire blame for this powerlessness and tragedy is pinned on the General Council of the Libertarian Movement in France and will some day require payment and the comrades there (in France) are asked to take steps against such personnel as their criminal dereliction demands.

They ask for clarification as to there being a Democratic Alliance, made up of all parties and organizations except the Communist Party. An Alliance based in and offering guidance from M (Marseilles? Montauban?), with González Marín as our Movement’s representative …

They mention no change in the overall political state in the country from what was set out in an earlier report (?)

They are in touch with the UGT’s Executive which has indicated that it cannot raise as much as five centimos for practical work. It was through it that they found out about the abdication of Alfonso XIII in favour of his son, Don Juan.

They are aware of the POT (Workers’ Labour Party) venture and speak very harshly of those like them who are revisionists in terms of our tactics and principles and they state that they, and all the comrades enduring the Spanish tragedy have no time for philosophizing, but are minded that it is conduct rather than principles that is in need of revising and it seems to them that in that context the revisionists are going to come off very badly.

Martín: Says that the Council never supplied any aid to Spain and that in order to be able to save a few comrades they had had to get the cash however and from wherever they could. The upshot of which was the capture of a six-comrade group. He mentioned how a group had had to be formed; penniless, barefoot and semi-naked. He pointed an accusing finger at the Council and not just the Council but all the comrades who had money at the time.”

These comrades acted as volunteer, unpaid couriers liaising with the Spanish National Committees based in Madrid, and came from the group of Francisco Ponzán, whom we have briefly outlined. The Ponzán group fitted in such liaison work around its main mission which was to rescue hundreds of antifascists who were crossing the border in order to join the Allied armies.

[pp. 96-98]

From: El Movimiento clandestino en España : 1939-1949. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.