How the History of the Spanish War is written

*Freedom’s Battle: J. Alvarez del Vayo. 1940. Heinemann. 15s.)

Alvarez del Vayo could have written an interesting book on the Spanish war, if he had wished to relate his experiences with sincerity. Unfortunately he has not disclosed anything about the internal politics with which he has been closely connected. The whole book (except where he deals with non-intervention) shows that he is anxious to prove that there has been no revolution in Spain; that what took place was merely a war for the independence of a democratic country against the fascist invader. To write the history of the Spanish war without mentioning the work carried out by the revolutionary parties and syndicalist organisations will seem a rather difficult task to those who know how closely the war was connected with the revolution for the Spanish people. But Alvarez del Vayo is writing for the average Englishman and American completely ignorant of Spanish affairs, and he knows that his tale will be accepted and believed, and this [that] his distortions will pass unnoticed.

How is the seizure of the land by the armed peasants, and of the factories by the workers described in del Vayo’s book? (p. 140):

“By a decree of October 7th, 1936, the Republican State carried out the expropriation of the estates of all landowners who had taken part in the rebel movement, and these were distributed among the smallholders and farm labourers… It was a strictly legal measure, based on Article 44 of the Spanish Constitution…

Needless to say that the Catalan and Castilian peasants didn’t wait for the decree of the government in order to take their land, the government only legalised the state of affairs that had already been in existence for more than two months, because it was powerless to do otherwise.

The socialization of industry must have been another dream of exalted spirits, if one is to believe del Vayo:

“The Management Committees of these factories often consisted of simple workmen not because the Republic had decided, for any doctrinal reason, to socialize industry, but because in many cases the former directors of the factories had abandoned them in the early days of the war…”

What del Vayo is afraid to say lest he should hurt the feelings of his respectable readers is that when the directors or owners had not abandoned their factories they were often executed by the workers – a natural revenge after years of exploitation and repression – who then organized their factories on a socialist or anarchist basis, abolishing private profits and inequalities of salaries. Most of Spanish industry and transport was organized by the syndicates in the first days of the revolution with excellent results.

Another tale which it is difficult to believe is that Russia did not intervene in Spanish affairs. The communist press itself, the confessions of Stalin’s agents, the testimonials of people cross-examined by Russian Cheka men, all give ample proof of the direct intervention of Russia. We shall not go into details here as these are well known facts accepted by everyone except people of ill-faith.

I want, however, to give an example of the way del Vayo writes history. Since it would be impossible, in one article, to deal with all the omissions and distortions contained in this book, I will confine myself to correcting the account of the events at Tarancon, which are not well known to the British public, but are of great significance for the understanding of Spanish affairs.

The Incident at Tarancon

When, at the beginning of November, 1936, Madrid was surrounded by the Fascist troops, the government decided to leave the capital for Valencia. The ministers left Madrid by car on the 6th of November but were stopped at Tarancon (a small village 45 miles from Madrid). Tarancon was occupied by the “Colunma del Rosal” which was under anarchist control and whose leader Francisco del Rosal has been later military governor of Lerida. The commander of the column had received an order to prevent people with arms from leaving Madrid as all available arms were needed for the defence of the city. The cars of the ministers leaving Madrid were stopped like the others and when the militiamen discovered to their great indignation, that the members of the government were fleeing to Valencia they prevented the cars from going any further. Jose Vilanueva and Feliciano Benito, leaders of the column, decided to keep the four ministers under control while they were getting in touch with members of the anarchist organization in order to know whether they were to be put under lock and key, or rather shot.

One may find it hard to understand why those anarchist militiamen thought of getting rid of the government at that critical moment. But it must be remembered that the government had shown once more its inefficiency by leaving the defence of Madrid in the hands of the syndicalist organizations and revolutionary parties and that it had aroused popular indignation by fleeing while thousands of militiamen were sacrificing their lives. The government appeared incompetent, cowardly, irresponsible; why not suppress it and go forward with the war and the revolution? The newspapers of those days came out with big headlines “Viva Madrid sin gobierno” (long life to Madrid without a government) – Madrid boasted of fighting better without a government but at the same time felt that a government which had no “raison d’etre,” and only demoralized the people by its cowardice, should be suppressed….

That’s how the militiamen of Tarancon felt and while guarding the four ministers (the others had taken another route probably having an intuition of the danger) they phoned the headquarters of the anarcho-syndicalist organization (C.N.T.) in Madrid: “What are we to do with those ministers” – Eduardo Val, one of the best anarchist militants in Madrid and one of the organizers of the defence of Madrid, answered on the phone. He agreed that the ministers deserved to be brought back to Madrid to fight at the head of the Columns del Rosal or to be shot, but the whole government should have been suppressed. And the government contained four anarchist ministers since the beginning of November and those ministers, though opposed at first to leaving Madrid, had agreed in the end and were already in Valencia. If the anarchist organization ordered the shooting of the ministers of other parties while its own had escaped it would be discredited before the masses. That is why Eduardo Val gave the order (by phone and then in writing) to free the captive ministers.

It is hardly necessary to point out the interest of this incident. The militiamen of Tarancon realized how harmful the government was, they wanted to suppress it, in order to give a new impulse to the revolution. The members of the syndicates were defending Madrid and it was to them, that the task of ruling themselves should have fallen. What right had a Caballero or a del Vayo to rule them while outside the struggle? It was for the militiamen and workers of Madrid to take control of the finance and see that arms were bought, to take control of the supplies of arms and ammunitions and see that they were all sent to the front line and distributed equally. To ensure the success of the revolution the government had to be suppressed, but by entering the government, by allying themselves with the instrument of reaction the anarchist leaders had paralysed the rank and file and thereby prevented the revolution from being saved at Tarancon.

One of the ministers who had the misfortune to be stopped at Tarancon was Senor Del Vayo. When Jose Vilanueva reluctantly liberated him and his companions he told them:

“The organisation against my will frees you. You can go to Valencia. But don’t forget your flight nor the heroism with which the people of Madrid is fighting.” Senor Del Vayo did not forget and one can understand that the incident left in him some bitterness. However this does not justify the falsified account he gives of what happened and the accusations with which he charges the comrades who arrested him.

The Columna del Rosal composed of militiamen who had fought at Siguenza, and of Madrid workers and peasants becomes in Del Vayo’s book the “Iron Column” behind which “fine sounding name” – according to him – “a whole series of undesirables, armed with rifles and obeying no law but their own, were sowing terror on all sides…” “The local chief,” he goes on, “was a man whom I had known since the revolutionary movement of 1930 preceded the Republic, and whose connections with the police of that time had given grounds for suspecting him of being nothing but a common informer.”

A column of murderers and thieves whose leader was an informer – that’s how Del Vayo describes the column which fought in Siguenza and in Madrid with great heroism. The name of the common informer is not even given though one might think that the least one can do is to name the person against whom such charges are brought.

Was the common informer Feliciano Benito, old anarchist militant, defender of Siguenza and shot by Franco after the defeat? Was he Jose Vilanueva, commissar of the 12th division who fought on the Madrid front and died in the front line at Teruel?

Del Vayo assures us that a punitive expedition was sent from Valencia in order “to put an immediate end to the domination of the Iron Column over Tarancon.” There was no punitive expedition. The Columna del Rosal left Tarancon in order to go to the defence of Madrid while the “Iron Column” incidentally was never at Tarancon, operated exclusively in Catalonia and Levante.

Not content with falsifying the whole aspect of the civil war in Spain by forgetting to mention the revolution on the one hand, and the action of Russia on the other, Del Vayo modifies even the smallest incidents. I hope the example given above will show how careful one has to be when reading this kind of book.

M. L. B.

From: War Commentary, Vol.2, No.1, November 1940.