A journey into libertarian historical memory; Casas Viejas, January 1933

11 January 2013 marked the 80th anniversary of the Casas Viejas uprising by a band of CNT-affiliated peasants and the slaughter of 20 of them at the hands of the Civil Guard and Assault Guard detachment under the orders of Captain Rojas. By way of commemorating and paying tribute to all who fought and perished for their libertarian ideals, we shall try to offer a brief outline of what happened in the light of the most recent research and the uncovering of documents relating to this matter.

If we travel northeast from the city of Cadiz for some 60 kilometers, through the scenic, fertile slopes of the Cadiz sierras, a long-time fief of the landowning blue bloods of the Medina-Sidonia y Medinaceli clan, one arrives at the heights overlooking the valley of the Barbate river and Lake La Janda: the village of Benalup-Casas Viejas.

The incidents that occurred there have to be seen in the context of the Second Spanish Republic in 1933, with a republican-socialist coalition government headed by Manuel Azaña locked in confrontation with the CNT and the wider libertarian movement.

As far as the CNT goes, the Catalonian Regional Defence Committee had run with the idea of a general strike mooted by Juan García Oliver, eager to act upon the “revolutionary gymnastics” made up of an uprising that might prevent the “bourgeois republic” from becoming embedded. The date chosen was 8 January 1933. It seems as if the uprising failed to attract a widespread following. The Army and the Civil Guard occupied strategic positions wherever disorder had been anticipated and trade union leaders were rounded up.

As for Casas Viejas, events might be summarised, hopefully in a balanced way but subject to revision, as follows:

On the night of 10 January 1933 and in the early hours of 11 January, a group of CNT-affiliated farm labourers gathered in the Ateneo Libertario – and quite unaware that they were isolated and that the uprising had failed in other nearby locations – embarked upon an uprising. They proclaimed libertarian communism and common ownership of the land, setting fire to the town archive and the property deeds and distributing food. In the morning they dismissed the mayor and, armed with shotguns and the odd handgun, surrounded the Civil Guard barracks, where there were three guards and one sergeant and called upon these to surrender. When they refused, an exchange of gunshots erupted and the sergeant plus one of the guards were seriously wounded.

At 2.00 p.m. on 11 January, a team of twelve Civil Guards under a Sergeant Anarte arrived in Casas Viejas, freed their colleagues, who had been left behind in the barracks and took over the village. Three hours after that, a further batch of police reinforcements arrived under the command of Lieutenant Gregorio Fernández Artal arrived: they comprised 4 Civil Guards and 12 Assault Guards. They promptly set about arresting those allegedly responsible for the attack on the Civil Guard barracks, two of whom after torture, pointed the finger at two sons and a son-in-law of Francisco Cruz Gutierrez, nicknamed Seisdedos, a 72 year old charcoal maker and CNT member, who had sought refuge in his home, a mud-and-stone shack, alongside his family. On attempting to break down the door to Seisdedos’s home, one Assault Guard was shot dead on the doorstep and another was seriously wounded. An unsuccessful attempt was made to storm the shack at ten o’clock that night. Sometime after midnight, a company of 40 Assault Guards arrived in Casas Viejas under the command of Captain Rojas who was under orders from the Director-General of Security, Arturo Menéndez, to close in from Jérez and stamp out the uprising by pouring “merciless fire at any who open fire on the troops”.

Captain Rojas ordered his men to open up on the shack with their rifles and machine-guns and later gave the order for it to be torched. Two of the occupants, a man and a woman, were cut down as they ran outside to escape the flames. Six people were burnt to death inside the shack, including Seisdedos, his two sons, his son-in-law and his daughter-in-law. The sole survivor was Seisdedos‘s grand-daughter, María Silva Cruz, known as ‘la Libertaria’.

At around 4.00 a.m., Rojas ordered three patrols to scour the village and arrest all the leading militants, instructing his men to shoot at the first sign of resistance. They killed the old man Antonio Barberán Castellar, aged 74, arrested a dozen others and led them in handcuffs to the burnt-out shell of Seisdedos‘s shack. There, Captain Rojas and his men murdered them in cold blood in the little pen.

Shortly after that, they pulled out of the village. The slaughter was over. Nineteen men, two women and a child had perished. As had three guards. As a result of these events lots of locals were later subjected to torture and wholly arbitrary imprisonment. The last victim was María Silva Cruz, ‘la Libertaria’, Seisdedos‘s grand-daughter and the sole survivor; in July 1936, the area fell into the clutches of the fascist rebels. María was then living in Paterna, a nearby village. They sought her out there, carried her off and murdered her.

So much for the facts.

As in so many other incidents like this which occurred in such turbulent times in Spanish history, there is a wide variety of versions and interpretations of what happened to choose from, some of them plainly contradictory and dictated by ideological assumptions that try to fit the events in with what one has already made up one’s mind to believe.

The part played in all this by Manuel Azaña is a case in point: he was head of the coalition government in Madrid at the time. Although he was without doubt the man chiefly responsible for the massacre politically, it seems that he remained unaware of the scale of the incident for some months thereafter, as far as we can judge from his memoirs, which are predictably self-indulgent, and from the records of the trial mounted against Captain Rojas in the Cadiz Provincial High Court, which have only recently come to light. What seems all too clear, from his own statements, is that, with hindsight, Rojas was convinced that he had acted properly.

At the subsequent trial the main culprits were given prison terms. Not so the leading political culprit, Manuel Azaña, who emerged blameless but with his political reputation greatly damaged. Later, predictably, Captain Rojas and the other 14 killers convicted in Cadiz were set free by the fascist rebels in 1936 and from the outset they fought against the Republic.

In any event, a variety of historians agree from a range of differing outlooks that the Casas Viejas incident was significant in what became of the Second Republic and that it represented a watershed moment that highlighted the contradictions that hastened its tragic demise.

These days nearly every house in Casas Viejas is a new build. Where Seisdedos‘s shack once stood, they have built a luxury hotel that they wanted to name La Libertaria but which they eventually finished up calling the Hotel Utopia. In the village there is a tiny but very interesting museum of prehistoric Cadiz. Ruben, the affable young man who runs it, is also in charge of tours of the 1933 massacre site. The only buildings still standing from those days are the church and, right beside it, the Civil Guard barracks. A pizzeria has just opened its doors on the corner.

From: Rojo y Negro, February 2013. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.