Q. Many years have passed since 25 October 1917 when you were born. That was a year of significant social upheaval. I suppose that, being so young, you were outside of all that and other contemporary developments. What was childhood like for Antonio Varga Rivas?
A. My childhood like that of the vast majority of the fishermen's sons, could scarcely have been worse, given the circumstances in which their industry found itself at the time.
In my boyhood days these outcasts of the sea were marginalised, exploited and scorned. The term of 'playero' (beach bum) used for the fishermen by other classes in society, and even by other workers, was a standing affront to the dignity of those decent working men. That scorn and marginalisation was mirrored in the treatment of children, we being the offspring of fisher folk.
At the age of eight I had to quit school in order to help my father with the tough, poorly paid fishing business. Barefoot and hungry, shivering from the cold on dismal winter nights. I had nevertheless to go with my father to earn a living to feed and maintain my many brothers and sisters. I believe that I was 11 before I got my first pair of sandals when I started as an apprentice baker with the Barranco Martin brothers.
Q. From early on you were in sympathy with the libertarian ideal, something that was to play a crucial impact upon the course of your life. Was there somebody or something that triggered that?
A. In the 1930s an anarchist militant arrived in Adra from Mexico. He had been active there and in Barcelona during the 1920s and afterwards in libertarian circles. This comrade (his name was Juan Reyes Rodriguez) did great work in our village and he managed to draw a large number of youngsters to anarchist ideas.
I was always a great one for reading anything that came my way and my rebellious streak in the face of an unjust society made me identify with novels like La Novela Ideal and La Novela Libre collections. These came out periodically under the editorship of Federico Urales (the pseudonym of Juan Montseny) Federica Montseny's father, were written by anarchist militants and by those who supervised the novels.
Reading them made many of us more hostile to capitalist society and to the violence that society deployed against the workers. Which is how, at the age of 15, I, like many another, was drawn towards the young libertarians of Adra.
Q. On 14 April 1931 the second republic was proclaimed in Spain by democratic means. The change of regime raised high hopes of social changes for the better, especially as regards the least favoured classes who had not done their bit to bring down the monarchy for nothing. Did the republic live up to the expectations it had created?
A. The republic proclaimed through the popular will on 14 April 1931 opened the doors to hope, especially for the working class which took to the streets with great enthusiasm to express its delight at its advent which held out the promise of better times ahead for our country in terms of freedom and well-being.
Those hopes were soon dashed. The new regime made no great change to what had happened under monarchist rule. Remember that lots of people, politically committed to the monarchy, made a determined contribution to bringing us the republic. Among them were Dr Maraon, the Count of Romanones and many another who became republicans overnight.
The republican government which had made so many promises to enthuse the humblest classes in Spanish society carried on upholding privilege and championing the bastard interests of the big landowners. The so-called agrarian reform was yet another titbit and was never implemented. The only thing that the Azana-Casares Quiroga government did was to send the Civil Guard into Casas Viejas on 8 January 1933 along with Captain Rojas and his Assault Guards to wipe out the anarcho-syndicalists who had seized the uncultivated land for the purpose of putting them to use.
Q. In 1932 a branch of the Libertarian Youth was set up in Adra, something with which you were not unconnected since you became a member before your 16th birthday. What sort of activities were you involved in?
A. After a congress in Madrid, the Libertarian Youth was established nationwide. A little group of Adra youngsters operating clandestinely were represented at that congress by a delegate from Granada by the name of Antonio Morales Guzman, a militant quite well known in libertarian circles.
The Libertarian Youth was up and running in Adra from that point on. A propaganda drive was launched to recruit working class youngsters. Pamphlets were distributed, the popular Novela Ideal and Novela Libre, as well as anarchist literature, manifestos and newspapers.
In 1933, before I had turned 16, I joined the Libertarian Youth and thereafter was one of the determined young activists. We soon met with some success and won the sympathy and support of the fishermen and the workers at large.
Q. As you have said, one of the aims of the Libertarian Youth was to pave the way to the establishment of a CNT union, in which you were successful at the end of 1934. What can you remember about that day?
A. It was indeed in 1934, at the height of the 'Black Biennium' when the right was in power under the government of Alejandro Lerroux and Jose Maria Gil Robles (the former better known as 'the emperor of the Paralelo' and the latter as 'the mobile pumpkin', a nickname hung on him by our Andalusian comrade Juan Rueda Jaime) .. about that time that the first CNT union in Adra was set up.
That day - I can't call to mind the exact date - was a joyous day, a day of libertarian enthusiasm. The premises, a long boatyard, were packed with fishermen, peasants and other tradesmen. The governor of Almeria had sent a delegate along and a couple of Civil Guards to witness the establishment of the union which was set up in accordance with the laws in force.
Comrade Morales Guzman, mentioned above, came up from Granada for the express purpose of addressing the workers. I remember that, without moderating his tone and paying no heed to the Civil Guard and government delegate present, he said this to the fishermen, words that are engraved upon my memory: "Fishermen comrades, the pennies and sums that you used to squander on wine should now be salted away until you have enough to buy weapons to take on the Civil Guard and Assault Guards."
These days, that sort of talk may well appear provocative. But in those days we had to use violence to defend ourselves from the violence used against workers by the 'forces of order'.
Comrade Diego Padilla Suarez was appointed by acclamation to chair this packed meeting. Diego, like his brother Jose, was murdered by Francoists shortly after the end of the civil war.
Q. What hurdles did the CNT in Adra come up against during its first few months in existence?
A. We were forever coming up against problems because you have to remember that there was a rightwing government in power and in Adra the rightwingers were extremely reactionary. The village authorities did not look kindly upon the libertarian youth who had done time in jail setting up a union with anarcho-syndicalist leanings and successfully attracting so many workers to their ranks. Those people looked upon us as dangerous types and in the end they managed to have our union shut down.
Q. The February 1936 elections brought success for the Popular Front, a success to which the CNT had directly contributed. What led anarcho-syndicalists to depart momentarily from their political principles?
A. On 9 February 1936 we were handed back the keys to our union hall. I personally handed them over at the door to comrade Diego Padilla. Diego drove a vehicle that was yoked up to some wagons to ferry big stones from the quarry to the docks. In the February 1936 elections, the Organisation had thousands of brave members in jails all across Spain. The leftist forces making up the Popular Front promised the National Committee that the prisoners would walk free the day after they won. That was the main reason that led the confederal organisation to help the left to succeed through its members' votes. That promise was honoured and thousands of comrades rejoined their loved ones. Among them were 5 from Adra who had been doing time in Alcala de Henares prison.
Q. We can state that the revolt on 18 July was a direct result of a plot hatched over some time by a broad segment of the army backed by the sociological right o do away with the liberal democratic rule characteristic of the republic, but the coup failed, doubtless due to the emphatic backlash by the workers' organisations. How did things go in Adra? What part did the politicians play in the early days of the fighting?
A. On 19 July 1936, in response to a call from their higher bodies, the young libertarians and CNT personnel took to the streets and seized the weapons in the possession of far right personnel in the village. From such people we seized a few pistols, revolvers and shotguns.
We had a meeting with the Civil Guard. One of the Guards opened fire on a group of our comrades who were on our way to a house where a very reactionary doctor had some arms in storage. We backed off and defended ourselves with three or four shotguns. The Guards climbed on to the roof and carried on firing but luckily no one was hit by them. With only shotguns, all we could do was make a lot of noise.
These Guards, regarded as mutineers against the republic, were disarmed and locked up in the El Ejido barracks. In the early days the politicians in Adra stood back from what was happening although a special mention must be made of the then mayor Francisco Fernandez from the Izquierda Republicana party, who ventured out of Adra with us and took up a forward position.
Q. So the revolt was put down in Adra. But what was the position in the city of Almer'a?
A. Once the Civil Guards and fascists hiding on or having fled from the village had been arrested, the position in Adra was returning to normal. During the early days of the revolt the situation in Almer'a was rather confusing. The streetfighting was very tough. Had it not been for the presence of the warship Lepanto in the harbour (loyal to the government) the army might have taken to the streets and the revolt might well have succeeded.
A group of us young libertarians, joined by some members of other leftwing organisations, made for Almeria by lorry. Some of us had shotguns and the odd short arm but we made a very positive contribution, so much so that the local army commander who had stayed loyal to the government, congratulated a group of us libertarians from Adra who had gone to see him at his invitation. When the captain of the Lepanto trained his guns on the army barracks, the barracks surrendered whereupon a group of us joined the sailors from the Lepanto and made our way, under gunfire from fascists shooting from the balconies, to the barracks where we armed ourselves with rifles and 150 shells apiece.
Q. After overcoming all resistance from the rebels in the capital and by now equipped with rifles and munitions aplenty, the Adra militias operated in various villages in the Granadan Alupujarras. Why not give us more detail on these operations?
A. Some of the villages where the fascists were in control were retaken by the men from Adra. In Cadiar and in Valoz we had to use our guns against the rebels. They were using their rifles against us from the belltower of the church in Cadiar. We managed to winkle them out of the tower. And we took a few losses in that village.
In Valoz we made contact with a group that had come up from Almeria under the command of a lieutenant who had stayed loyal to the republic. Together we travelled on to Juviles.
Q. In the encampment in Juviles, with the front lines pretty well defined, a War Committee was set up with yourself serving on it. Tell us a little about it.
A. Once we arrived in Juviles we made camp near that little village. A group of carabineers from Almeria arrived after us. We got together with them all and the decision was made to set up a War Committee. On that committee there would be representation for the carabineers, the group under the army lieutenant's command, a group of comrades from Granada who had made it out of the city before it fell, as we know, to the fascists. That group was represented by comrades Germinal Lopez Mingorance, Antonio Morales Guzman and Floreal Heredia. Floral was killed in Gandia when he was there as the committee's representative securing arms for the front. Diego Ibanez Gonzales, Diego Padilla Suarez and I represented the guys from Adra.
Q. One of the main results of the failure of the army revolt was the collapse of the republican command and the emergence of committees as the new agencies orchestrating life in the villages and cities. Adra was no exception in this. Right?
A. Naturally that part of Spain that ended up under government control underwent a great and telling transformation as a result of the virtual power vacuum created in many cities and villages around the country. As you say, Adra was no exception. Here the town council became a sort of skeleton with no authority. New bodies were set up to oversee every facet of day to day life in the village. The Liaison Committee was the supreme authority and all of the leftwing forces were represented on it. An Antifascist Militias Committee was also set up along with others like the Supplies Committee. These committees, especially the Liaison Committee, performed, among other things, the functions that the town council had performed. Early in 1937 the Municipal Council was set up and the town council and Liaison Committee were wound up.
Q. You were soon called back into the rearguard and while in Juviles you had a message from Lorenzo Padilla Ortega, the then secretary of the Adra CNT. His purpose was to set you to work along with some other comrades on the organisation of the fishing industry. How did he come to choose you? And how did you organise the collective?
A. I think it was at the beginning of August 1936 when comrade Lorenzo Padilla Ortega (who was shot by Franco), the same age as me and who had been in jail with me in Almeria in 1934 at the age of 16. sent me a note asking me to return to Adra. From a very early age I had accompanied my father on the small boats (he skippered one of them) and later, after we set up the CNT union in 1934, we successfully recruited 95% of the fishermen to the union. The owners of the sardine boats and nets used to keep 50% of the catch as well as three quarters of the 'winches' used to wind in the nets. A strike committee was formed and the employers were threatened. At the union's request, the fishermen refused to put to sea unless those three quarters were given over. The boat owners had to give in and this was the union's and the fishermen's first victory. Meaning that I was well familiar with the fishing industry's problems. Which is why the comrades thought I should get actively involved in collectivising the Adra fishermen. The collective was launched as follows. A big assembly was arranged in the Capital cinema and was attended by fishermen and some of the boat-owners. It was agreed that a Fishermen's Union would be set up along with a committee that would take charge of dealing with the catch and supplying whatever tools the boats needed. I was appointed secretary of that committee.
The collective operated well right up until the loss of Malaga after the governor of Almeria, Gabriel Moron Diaz, a crypto-communist (purporting to be a socialist) sent in the Assault Guards with a warrant winding up the Fishing Industry Union and the Fishing Committee. He knew that this was a lie because both bodies were working perfectly.
Q. What other schemes of a social or economic nature was the CNT promoting at that time?
A. After the revolutionary venture of collectivisation, other schemes of a social and economic nature were tackled. A store was set up from which the fishermen and their families could get goods at moderate prices. A school was set up for the fishermen's children, for illiteracy was very common among these children. We appointed a teacher sympathetic to our cause to head the school. A Libertarian Athenaeum was also set up. All of these activities went down very well with the workers.
Q. The loss of Malaga in the early months of 1937 was a great military and humanitarian disaster. Added to loss of morale and a general feeling of powerlessness, there was a huge advance by Queipo de Llano's troops. And it was used as an excuse for numerous attacks on the libertarian organisations, a foretaste of what was to come in Barcelona a few months later. What are your recollections of those days?
A. The loss of Malaga had serious repercussions for our organisation in Adra. Francoist military forces halted in Castell de Ferro but they could have pressed on to Almeria had they so wished. No one would have stopped them.
After Franco's troops halted in Castell de Ferro, the 660th Mixed Brigade, made up of foreign and Spanish communists, arrived. The brigade was under the command of Luigi Longo, a leading Italian communist who went by the name of 'Commandante Gall'. The first thing the brigade did was to commandeer our premises. where much of our documentation was. Many books belonging to our Athenaeum were seized and out documentation was either dumped or destroyed. When we got back to the village and tried to get our premises back, the brigade's officers turned out out into the street at gunpoint. We were not armed.
Many of us comrades were virtually forced to go into hiding for fear of being the victim of dirty tricks whilst others left the village. By the time these people moved on taking with them all of the food there was in Adra, we recovered the premises and resumed our activities.
Q. In accordance with Almeria civil governor Moran Diaz's orders, what was to be the Municipal Council, which is to say, a revival of the defunct town councils, was established on 4 March 1937. What were the intentions behind its establishment? Did the CNT serve on it?
A. The Adra Municipal Council was set up in March 1937. A small number of politicians took that decision over the heads of all three branches of the libertarian movement, which was the majority in the village. The aim was to marginalise us and keep us out of local administration.
In the end the Adra politicians had to give way and comply with the law promulgated by the government and award us the posts that our movement's three wings were entitled to under the law. These politicians were frustrated in their attempts to keep us off the Municipal Council. During our comrades' term of service on that body, the population's circumstances improved in every regard.
Q. You went to the front a second time, not as a militian this time but as a soldier in the regular army following militarisation of the militias. Which fronts were you on? How did you get back?
A. When I was called up with my class they took me to Cartagena, to the naval infantry barracks. We received two months' training in a little village down by the beach and were then loaded on to a train and taken to a front that had been established in the province of Valencia. I never saw action. The day after we had taken up the positions assigned to us by the military command, the company was all but wiped out. Most of the naval infantry troopers, replacement troops, defected to the enemy during the night.
I was taken ill and they took me to a hospital in Valencia before sending me on to Alicante where a medical panel assigned me to auxiliary services. I returned to Adra and rejoined the organisation and the Quartermaster Corps, dealing with everything related to the fishing industry.
Q. On 10 March, with the war fronts collapsing and the Defence Junta trying to negotiate an honourable peace, you embarked upon a plan to leave the country with other comrades, male and female. Tell us about this odyssey.
A. It would take me ages to give you a detailed account of the vicissitudes, calamities and mishaps that befell those of us who quit Adra on 10 March 1939, bound for Oran in two fishing boats. We did the crossing in 32 hours. On 11 March we ran into a storm from the south that made our voyage difficult. One of the boats had engine trouble and we had to take her in tow. A plane flew over us, but thinking that we were fishermen at work, it moved on. At 6.00 am. on 12 March I sailed the Òquita penasÓ into harbour in Oran.
Q. In Oran, a French protectorate in those days, you began a lengthy exile that would bring you, years later, to London, but before than, how were you treated by the French authorities?
A. When we arrived in Oran on 12 March we were very well received by the people who crammed the dockside and by the populace in general, most of them being Spaniards or of Spanish descent. The French authorities received us well.
Our Calvary started in September 1939, shortly before war erupted in Europe before turning into a world war. We were drafted into labour companies and our suffering began. We were treated as little less than slaves. We worked with spade and pick, clearing the ground for road-building.
When the Germans invaded France one group of us Spaniards, fearing repatriation to Spain, signed on with the Foreign Legion. On arrival in Oran en route to Marseilles I escaped from the barracks where we were to spend the night. Two comrades helped me escape. I spent 10 months in the city without papers, turning my hand to all sorts of jobs; bringing water to the houses, driving a horse-drawn buggy, working as a bricklayer, fisherman and other things until the gendarmes asked me for the papers that did not have. They threw me in jail for two months and I hard a bad time of it. The 'trusties' appointed by the jail authorities had carte blanche to do what they liked with inmates and made especial targets of the Arabs.
When I came up for trial after two months in jail I handed over a document from the Labour Company registering me as 'fit'. I added 'un-fit' and the judge went for it and set me free. Once outside I went to a police station to see if they would issue me with papers allowing me to stay in Oran and they sent me back to prison until they took me out again to bring me to the concentration camp in Djelfa, in southern Algeria. On reaching Djelfa the first greeting I received from a French officer was to be struck in the face with a whip and abused. In one year 32 Spaniards perished there. My trade as a baker was a stroke of luck, for they opened an oven and set me to work there. At personal risk I used to help sick comrades.
Q. When and how did your term in the concentration camps in Algeria end?
A. In November 1942 the Allies landed in North Africa. The British landed in Algiers and vicinity. A commander in the British secret services showed up at Djelfa camp with some officers and released us. Most of us Spaniards (we were almost all CNT members) decided to enlist in the army as volunteers.
The French had treated us so badly that we had no desire to remain on French soil.
Q. On which Second World War fronts did you serve with the British Armed Forces? When were you demobbed?
A. Our company, 361 Company carried out rearguard duties although there were some Spaniards who joined the commandos. The British were reluctant to use us on the front because they knew that,. if captured, we would be repatriated to Spain and, in those days, most of us would have been shot.
I was demobbed in November 1946.
Q. After you were demobbed you embarked with other comrades on your struggle against the Franco regime from exile. What work was done by you CNT personnel based in London?
A. We were organised at all times, even inside the army. This was not allowed but the British were tolerant and knew that we were antifascists, so they turned a blind eye. When we were demobbed the first thing we did was set up the Libertarian Youth. In the United Kingdom there was a sizable group of comrades who had arrived in England back in 1939 and had the CNT up and running. So we promptly joined the Organisation and our group became the largest and most dynamic there ever was in Great Britain.
Q. Antonio, after so many years of sacrifices and defeats, and all the work you did unselfishly in your youth, do you feel disappointment?
A. It is true that in life, when faced with so much adversity, one suffers a lot of disappointments, but, as a well-known Andalusian comrade once said to me, in the daily struggle, these are only the thorns among the roses.
I am not a pessimist. Although I cannot feel completely satisfied, I feel something akin to contentment at having done my bit, lending a helping hand to advance that which those of us active in our circles want to achieve. Anarchists as priceless as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker, Ricardo Mella, Anselmo Lorenzo and many others who did so much for the struggle to achieve a more humane, fairer society , never weakened and carried on optimistically and happily, steadfast in their ideals right to the end of their days.
There is no place for pessimism in our ranks in spite of mishaps and suffering.
In our youth we ran up against all sorts of obstacles placed in our way by the eternal enemies of progress and freedom but we were not cowed and the more hurdles they placed in our path the more eager we were to carry on with the fight.
From: CNT (Granada) August 2000.