Cipriano Mera: Portrait of a Battler

If there is one thing that sums up Cipriano Mera it is this: he was an anarchist with a developed sense of responsibility. And by taking a closer look at the life and struggles of this Madrid anarchist we can get to grips with that description.

Cipriano Mera was born on 4 November 1897 in Madrid’s Tetuán de las Victorias quarter. His childhood was tough, as it was for every other working class family.

He never got the chance to go to school for from a very young age he was forced out to work by the need to make some contribution towards the running of his humble household. At the age of 16 Mera made up his mind to become a bricklayer and, so that his rights would be protected, his father enrolled him the UGT-affiliated ‘El Trabajo’ bricklayers’ society. From then on, Mera was up to his neck in social issues and labour affairs. But he soon found that the what the UGT stood for and what he was looking for were not the same thing, and he found the socialists’ trade unionism a bit restrictive. Cipriano Mera was out for a revolutionary change that reformism just did not offer.

The August 1917 revolutionary strike tipped him once and for all into the anarchist camp. And by 1919 Cipriano Mera was, alongside other leading militants such as Feliciano Benito, Teodoro Mora and Mauro Bajatierra, a driving force behind the Madrid CNT and especially its construction union

The yearning for knowledge and penchant for culture have been a constant theme in the history of anarchism (although its detractors would have us believe different). At the age of 20, Mera learned to read and write at night classes and through the libertarian ateneos, of which Madrid at the time had more than thirty. His thirst for knowledge piqued his interest in drama and he appeared in plays like Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El Alcalde de Zalamea or Joaquín Dicenta’s Juan José. The younger libertarian groups were heavily into amateur dramatics and Mera shared this interest.

With the Primo de Rivera dictatorship over and the Second Republic proclaimed in April 1931, the libertarian movement was able fully to expand. Mera was but one of a generation of the most brilliant militants produced by Spanish anarchism and he crossed paths with Salvador Seguí (murdered by the bosses’ hired guns in 1923), Ángel Pestaña, Francisco Ascaso, Buenaventura Durruti, Juan García Oliver, Federica Montseny, Eleuterio Quintanilla, Felipe Alaiz, Elias García, Isaac Puente, Hignio Noja, Valeriano Orobón Fernández, Progreso Fernández and such like.

Mera was closely involved in all of the revolutionary processes set in motion under the Republic. And was very attentive to the demands from the workers of his own industry, the construction industry. On one occasion, whilst looking for work, he found himself arrested under the Vagrancy and Mischief Law and it is something of a paradox that a man on the look-out for work should have been indicted by those who never did a hand’s turn of work themselves.

Shortly before the July 1936 army revolt, tensions were running high in the construction industry in Madrid. A general strike erupted that June and a joint CNT-UGT strike committee was formed. Mera, a member of that committee, looked to direct action as the only way of settling labour disputes in the industry. The government and employers, on the other hand, favoured the Tri-partite Commissions (Jurados Mixtos). The Interior ministry jailed Cipriano Mera and he was still behind bars when the army revolt came.

The very next day after the revolt, he was freed and made straight for the union (rather than home) to establish what the situation was. The main concerns were weapons procurement and the timing of the revolt in Madrid.

In those early times Mera was also worried about what approach might be adopted vis a vis the revolution. As far as he was concerned there was a revolutionary ethic that should be borne in mind: “So that when the people makes its revolution there must be no countenancing of anything akin to the common, vulgar criminality associated with conscienceless individuals out to line their own pockets or bring disgrace on values that might be neceeded for the defence of the revolution just getting under way. And let us add that random killing, even of a marquess, has also nothing to do with revolution.”

Once the rebels in Madrid itself had been crushed, Mera took off for Guadalajara where the rebellion was just about to start. He passed through Alcalá de Henares which was held for the loyalists, thanks to Mera’s forces and those under Ildefonso Puigdendolas. With the rebels in Guadalajara crushed too, Mera’s revolutionary ethics brought him greatness. It was there that he ran into José Escobar, a jailer who had made his life in prison a misery. Escobar thought that Mera was going to murder him, which he was not. Mera just said: “Anarchists don’t go in for that sort of thing“. A lesson in decency and fortitude in difficult times.

This may not be the place to go into the detail of the battles in which Mera took part. But we will cite a few of the things that made Mera such a controversial figure. Right from the outset of the war Mera could see that the army had a serious stick-at-it attitude whereas lots of revolutionary militants were not taking the struggle seriously. As he saw it the struggle had to be a disciplined struggle if they were to defeat the fascists. In the fighting around Cuenca, Mera encouraged the formation of councils composed of leftwing personnel equipped for the task. Meaning that what was needed was powerful ideological education delivered by the most capable and selfless militants.

His ideas about self-discipline were illustrated perfectly by the fighting around Buitrago de Lozoya. It was there that Mera set out his thoughts thus: “Our discipline must be on a par with our staunch belief in our ideas and where ideas are at stake one cannot just notch up a few hours of struggle and then go on and do whatever takes one’s fancy after that.” That was a good point for Mera was finding that many of the members of revolutionary organisations were lapsing into indiscipline and irresponsibility and that this was accelerating the loss of the war.

But that very fact was also causing many of Mera’s friends to lose their lives in the fighting. This was the case with José Pan and Rafael Casado, comrades of his stretching right back to his first days with the CNT and, in Pan’s case, they were members of the same FAI group. Likewise, in the fighting in Ávila, one of his best friends and comrades, Teodoro Mora, lost his life. For some time past Mera and Mora had been on the same wavelength: “We were facing an organised army and if we wanted to win we would have to counter with another, even better organised army; in war-time, war-time methods are called for.” He had also come to the conclusion that military incompetence was resulting in the loss of significant positions in the struggle, places such as Ávila.

But war sometimes can seem more of a comedy than a tragedy, to borrow the language of the theatre. After Ávila was lost, Mera’s troops moved on to Cuenca. There they seized one village by passing themselves off as fascists. Once a rightwing council had been formed and a list of leftwing elements drawn up, Mera’s troops disbanded the council, although they spared its members.

In the face of certain modes of conduct such as when anarcho-syndicalists like Germinal de Sousa charged a fee for the release of suspects, Mera and his friend Valle drew up lists of supporeters and opponents of the cause: “It seems to me only right that we should select out suitable personnel to occupy posts; we ought to be sure of them. We must have an end of improvisation and favouritism, for whilst it is important that we should appoint people of ability, it is just as important that account should be taken of their morals. Which should be a major concern to us!” And who today would question those words of Mera’s? It is precisely in times of difficulty that competency and morals should be exemplary. Mera was worried about the image of the CNT and FAI, especially given that on most occasions the outrages perpetrated had nothing to do with the libertarian movement’s organisations. But some people had their minds set on conjuring up a “dark legend” around the Spanish revolutionary labour movement’s most dynamic organisations. So the good behaviour of the CNT and its protection of cultural treasures (on more than one occasion it prevented arson attacks on churches, not because they were places of worship but because they housed art treasures) was misrepresented or held up to ridicule.

In any war or historical event a distinction has to be made between matters of strategy and matters of morality. Strategically speaking, maybe Madrid was not all that important. But psychologically speaking it was, given everything that hinged upon it. Thus Mera and others expressed outrage when the government fled Madrid for Valencia on 6 November 1936. Mera was even sadder to find the CNT national committee headed by Horacio Martínez Prieto trooping along in the government’s wake. According to Mera, the government and the national committee should have stayed to defend the Spanish capital. Evn as the government fled, Mera was making ready to defend Madrid from the fascists.

The CNT and FAI personnel who set off for Madrid were filled with enthusiasm and eager to do their bit in the heroic struggle such as in the defence of the San Fernando bridge and the approaches to the Cerro de Garabitas. But Mera’s forces were dwindling. Of the 1,000 men who had set off for Cuenca, only 400 were left. Mera tried to lift his men’s morale with a reshuffle and morale certainly lifted when Durruti’s column arrived. What good was fascist military might in the face of revolutionary zeal? Be that as it might, Mera’s side was still suffering heavy losses and the fighting was gobbling up the cream of the workers’ organisations. Mera put it to Durruti that his own columns should be unified under Durruti’s command. But this never happened because Durruti was shot down in front of the Clinical Hospital in the University City only hours after the meeting with Mera. And it was Cipriano Mera in person who travelled down to Valencia to bring the news to Federica Montseny, Juan García Oliver and the incoming secretary of the CNT national committe, Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez. The loss of Duruti left the libertarian movement at sixes and sevens but, for all his grief, Mera stated that Durruti’s example might help bring victory closer. And it was Mera who attended Durruti’s funeral in Barcelona as the representative from the fighters from the Centre region.

The defence of Madrid was tough, but on this occasion the fascists were denied their ambition. Even so, this was achieved at a heavy cost and Mera, much against his will, was forced to embrace militarisation of the militias. “It is hard to swallow when one has championed a certain ideal for a lifetime, but if we really do mean to win this war, we must agree to the formation of an army, with all the resultant discipline (…) I was aghast at donning a military uniform but I could see no other option and I told myself ‘From here on my conduct will bear witness to my integrity, just as it did in a different way and in different circumstances in the past’.” This was without question the most controversial decision in Cipriano Mera’s life and the one on which his detractors swoop. Mera agreed to militarisation as a way of serving the Republic for he took the view that that was a better option than falling into fascism’s clutches. It is not for us to gauge whether this was a mistake or not, for the war was a complicated affair. The best that we can do is to respect his decision, for it was the choice his comrades made at the time. And Mera’s acceptance of militarisation was not the same as the communists’ embrace of it. Most historians have stated that the party that campaigned most on behalf of militarisation was the PCE (Communist Party of Spain) and thus that that party had the best ‘handle’ on the war. When Mera agreed to militarisation it was with an eye to defending the Republic, whereas the communists were fighting for a militarisation under the control of their party and of Moscow. This was the big difference between the two approaches. The PCE had its emblematic Fifth Regiment, of which Mera was no fan. In fact we find ongoing frictions between the servicemen drawn from the CNT militias and those drawn from communist ranks, frictions that were always instigated by a PCE eager to gain control and run the war as it saw fit. To which the anarchists were always opposed.

Mera took command of the XIV Division, taking in the 10th, 70th and 77th brigades. His chief of staff, inseparable from him throughout the war, was Antonio Verardini and his cousin José Mera was in charge of transport. They were all under the command of General Miaja, officer commanding the Army of the Centre.

As to those critical of him over this, it has to be said that Mera was at all times responsible in his actions. He championed the revolution right to the end and was harshly critical of the communists’ repression of the anarchists’ revolutionary handiwork, as well as of their arrests of CNT personnel (Verardini for one) and of POUM members. He also lobbied against servicemen addressing public meetings. These were a matter for parties and trade unions, he argued, and not for servicemen. In the end a decree to that effect was issued and Mera came in for nasty criticism from the communists who were much given to such public displays: “We have a duty to nip that sort of political campaigning in the bud. All of us here are perfectly well aware that there is a ban on any sort of political propaganda being mounted within the Army. If a given organisation should try to ride roughshod over that decree, I will stop it. Let no one have any doubts on that score. Our duty is to do our best, sparing no effort, in an attempt to win this war. We are not here to facilitate the preponderance of any organisation.” Mera finally made it plain that his acceptance of a military commission was purely circumstancial: “I promised myself I would not let myself succumb to vanity, but stay what I had been prior to 18 July: a militant of the CNT and a bricklayer by trade.” This last utterance was prophetic, for after the suffering endured in wartime as well as in exile and in prison, Mera had no problem picking up his bricklayer’s trowel once more.

After militarisation, he was called upon to defend Guadalajara. The Italian fascists of the CTV (Volunteer Troop Corps) had devised a plan of attack designed to break through the republican lines in Guadalajara, seize Alcalá de Henares and march into Madrid in triumph. But Cipriano Mera put his organisational talents to work and, above all, let his instinct for warfare prevail. The CTV was routed, Brihuega (where there had been blood-curdling massacres only days before) liberated and Guadalajara held for the Republic. Mera did not view this as simply another battle, but the way he tackled it ensured that the CTV would not meet the targets it had set itself. Together with the capture of Teruel, the rout in Guadalajara was to be one of the greatest successes of world antifascism. Mera’s barracks were established once and for all in Guadalajara rather than in Madrid, as a way of avoiding air raids.

Shortly after that, he was summoned to Brunete where not only did Lister’s communists try to deceive him but he was targeted in a murder bid of questionable provenance. Lister misled Mera into believing that Brunete lay within republican territory. But Mera could see that it was in fascist hands. Lister’s plan was to pin the blame for the loss of Brunete on Mera’s XIV Division. Although Mera did mount an offensive against Brunete, he was unable to take it for the Republic.

Mera knew all of the politicians of the day. The moderate leader of the PSOE (Socialist Party) Indalecio Prieto, was impressed by Mera’s talents. A short time later the Madrid anarchist was promoted commander of the IV Army Corps. This was on the strength of the victory in Guadalajara and the endorsement of General Miaja who saw Mera as a bulwark in the defences of central Spain. The IV Army Corps established its headquarters in Alcohete (Guadalajara) and it played a leading role in the diversionary maneuvers mounted against the fascist enemy in the lead-up to the capture of Teruel.

1939 was a crucial year for the eventual outcome of the war. After Catalonia was lost in February 1939, the bulk of the Republic’s resources, in manpower and in materials, were gone. Cipriano Mera was alive to this fact. Here there was another landmark event in Mera’s life - his support for the National Defence Council set up by Segismundo Casado who had taken over command of the Army of the Centre from General Miaja. The Negrín government was by then in a shambles and a puppet in the hands of the communists. All attempts to talk to Negrín proved pointless for he just made promises that even he knew he could not deliver on. In March 1939 the National Defence Council was established and, as Mera foresaw, the response came in the form of a communist revolt which was ultimately frustrated. The reserve units of Mera’s IV Corps were mobilised in order to crush the PCE-sponsored revolt. Even so, Mera was not in agreement with everything that Casado stood for.

By late March 1939 the IV Army Corps was ordered to begin a withdrawal and to prepare for exile. The awful finale to a lost war was approaching. Mera was the last commander to abandon his post. He headed for Levante, hoping to catch a flight to Oran (French N. Africa). There was a very painful farewell to his family as a new stage in Mera’s life began. He cast aside his officer’s braid and never picked them up again, showing that his decision to don then really had been a matter of circumstance. A different sort of struggle lay ahead of him now.

Contrary to what one might have thought, Mera and his men were disarmed and placed under arrest on arrival in Mostaganem. The treatment doled out to Spanish exiles by the French authorties was petty-minded, especially when one considers the many concentration camps established throughout French territory and that Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime would later collaborate with the Nazis in dispatching thousands of Spaniards to the death camps. Mera was spared that fate but his suffering was not over yet.

After being arrested, one of the first things they did was to set about reorganising the CNT and FAI inside the concentration camps and behind bars. There was ongoing contact with the republicans and socialists. The same could not be said about the communists who, even in those circumstances, were trying to impose their will and extract favoured treatment from their jailers. They could not forgive Mera for having backed Casado and the National Defence Council, but Mera was able to stand his ground and was a match for them.

From the outset, Mera corresponded with members of the CNT and other organisations. His most consistent correspondence was with Mariano Rodriguez Vazquez which was interrupted only after the latter’s tragic death by drowning. It was a maxim of Mera’s that action was needed right away to protect the refugees and to reorganise the associations to which they belonged. Matters relating to the war and whatever mistakes might have been made during the conflict were something that could be analysed once the Franco dictatorship had been unseated and they were matters for debate between Spaniards and on Spanish soil. Mera also resisted the reformist theories designed to turn the CNT into just another political party and he was saddened to see leading comrades such as Vivancos, Jover or Doménech pushing that line.

Although he was in touch with the SERE (Spanish Refugee Evacuation Agency), it was not to his liking in that it was under the patronage of Juan Negrin and tightly controlled by the communists. He preferred to work with the JARE (Spanish Refugee Aid Council) which was headed by Indalecio Prieto and within which the anarchists had more influence.

Mera spent some time in Camp Morand, from where he escaped, reaching Casablanca (albeit not without mishap). There he was helped by Spanish and Portuguese anarchists. It was in Casablanca that he encountered the JARE, with which he had a few differences of opinion. He was helped to regularise his position and he found work, first as a box-maker and later as a bricklayer (picking up his trowel again, just as he had said during the war that he would).

The refugees’ position became harder due to the hostility from the French authorities under pressure from the Nazis. Cipriano Mera was arrested and put on trial and an order was made for his extradition to Spain. All attempts to rescue him proved pointless and he was eventually handed over to the Francoist authorities.

On reaching Spain he came into contact with other anarchists (many of them members of the Libertarian Youth). He served time in the prisons of Linares, Carabanchel and Porlier, all of them jam-packed with anti-Francoist prisoners. He was brought before a court martial on charges of looting and indiscriminate murder. Mera saw it as only to be expected that the Francist authorities, bereft of scruple and who had made criminality their signature, should have done this. He was sentenced to death. This was in 1941. He had earlier told his son: “To date they have have been shooting people by the cartload on no pretext at all, pretty much as in my own case and there is no reason to hope for any change at all in their behaviour. Mine will be just one more injustice and you must take note of it and overcome your grief. You will have to help your mother and look to the future without hatred for that leads nowhere. Your father is, as you know, the victim of hatred because he dedicated his life to the establishment of universal brotherhood and my recommendation to you above all else is that you do not hate your fellow men.”

Mera never applied for clemency because he wanted nothing from his executioners. But his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In prison, a number of Falangist inmates tried to meet Mera but he cut them dead, sayting that there was a river of blood separating Falangists and libertarians. So there would be no un-natural associations.

Mera was eventually freed. He attended a number of conspiratorial meetings, some involving the Francoist army, which he did not trust. In 1947 the CNT instructed him to cross into France and to try to reconcile the CNT of the Interior and the CNT abroad. He settled in France and worked for a living, first in Toulouse and then in Paris, where he lived with his partner. He worked as a bricklayer up until the age of 72. And never sought any military pension. He lived modestly and never gave up on his activity as an anarchist and trade unionist and attended the important CNT congress in Limoges in 1963.

His home played host to a succession of historians and journalists. The aura of a hero was created around Mera but he himself saw to the dispelling of that. In the spring of 1975, by which time he was very elderly, he was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties. He died in Paris on the morning of 24-25 October 1975. His funeral became a demonstration all but ignored by the media.

So ended the life of one anarchist battler. He was denied by only a few days a chance to witness the demise of Franco, the scourge of Spain. Which might have offered some small satisfaction to a man who had been so deeply committed to the fight for freedom.

From: From Tierra y Libertad (Madrid), No 207, October 2005. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.