How Libertarian Memory in France Was Usurped and Manipulated: a Story of a Theft

How Libertarian Memory in France Was Usurped and Manipulated: a Story of a Theft

Recovering our people’s memory that was not buried by fascism alone. Restoring to anarchism a portion of the history stolen by the PCE

Hello, readers! Here I go again, this time bringing you the usual thorny issue unlikely to make me many friends. I say ‘usual’ because it is a classic. And I do consider it a usurpation, not to say a bare-faced, spectacular act of thievery, whereby the credit for anarchists’ participation in the resistance and France has been hijacked from them. Facts have been concealed and manipulated and oblivion deliberately constructed and everything has been repeated to the point of overflow until it has become ‘truth’. And, for quick results, one had only to set the wheels of ‘party’ propaganda in motion. And it came to pass that some of those recounting history peddled this counterfeit truth that those who coming after them embrace as absolute truth, and in the meantime no one stepped up to challenge it and it all got rolled into an à la carte version of history. And rest assured that the slothfulness of the anarchist trade union bureaucrats played a part too.

Just as in the case of the Spanish Civil War the PCE (Communist Party of Spain) started out as a minority only to step up – thanks to the disinterested ‘aid’ poured in by the USSR – to become the great champion of the Republic, that story was largely repeated on French soil too. Well, not all the time, as there was that hiatus caused by the curious ‘Non-aggression’ Pact concluded between Hitler and Stalin; it wrong-footed lots of Communists and left them with a look of disbelief on their faces. 

For the benefit of those who may not know it, on 23 August 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a Non-aggression Pact, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (they being the men in charge of Foreign Affairs for the two countries). The agreement was formalized in Moscow just 9 days ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War. Furthermore, the Pact tightened up economic and commercial links between both powers. And we should not forget the small matter of the partitioning of Poland.

So, after German troops entered France on 10 May 1940, it took them just 40 days to bring half of the country under their control, the other half being subject to a puppet regime: the official Communist Party line (French and Spanish alike) made a virtue of necessity and decided to abide by the orders coming from Uncle Joe … in short that there was no need to attack the Nazi troops. Luckily for the world, a lot of Communists of both sexes, kicked over the traces of so-called party discipline and took action against Hitler’s hordes. 

Let us not be hypocritical: the CNT did pretty much the same thing, but in a more disorganized manner. The official orthodox line declined to join the Resistance, on the pretext of the dire treatment received from the French authorities. Once again, luckily for the world, a lot of male and female anarchists discarded the recommendations of the union bureaucrats who were in the habit of keeping their heads down during this turbulent period, and they did join the local resistance. In tribute to them, this article is speaking up to give them their due credit. Even Federica Montseny had to swallow her pride and eat her words and wound up devoting a book to them when, under the Occupation, all she ever did was criticize the libertarian masses who had taken up arms against the German occupiers and the Vichy police; indeed, the ones that joined the ranks of the UNE [Unión Nacional Española] were expelled from the anarchist organizations.

Let us now try, therefore, to dismantle the myth that the Spanish contribution to the resistance was essentially Communist.

Let me open with a couple of gems from the guerrilla Martin Arnal: “The PCE mushroomed. I am not denying its combativity during the Occupation, but, like we say, they made a lot of noise to very little effect. However, they did have a well-organized leadership on stand-by to occupy key positions in the future.” And speaking of a team of guides affiliated to the UNE, he remarks: “Three out of the five of us were CNT; that was the balance of forces throughout, except for the officers.” 

As it happens, the largest faction in exile – estimated at around 80,000 people  - was made up of militants, men and women, from the libertarian movement. But if anyone was to read a text on Spanish involvement with the French resistance, what would he find? That the PCE was the main organizer and orchestrator of Spanish resistance. We go by reading that recounts the actions mounted by Communists, and so, whenever we see somebody they tell us was not a party member, that is a lead that needs following up. Odd how the Libertad Battalion for instance is cited: “With the euphoria of the liberation a number of Spanish units were formed outside of the Agrupación; [presumably the Agrupación de Guerrilleros Españoles / Spanish Guerrillas Agrupación, KSL] the Libertad Battalion in Bordeaux for one. They were CNT members. Unlike the UNE Brigade in Bordeaux which had a fighting record, albeit over a short time, they had put up no resistance, engaging solely in black-marketeering.” So says the Communist UNE commander Victorio Vicuña

But (here we are back to the ‘buts’), the organization described as the Spanish National Union (UNE), which purported to be pluralist and an umbrella for as many factions as possible, was pluralist only in the sense that it welcomed guerrillas of every persuasion. There was not the same degree of pluralism when it came to making the rules and providing the leadership for that organization. The bulk of the leadership, political and military alike, was Communist and almost exclusively male Communists.  But (here come the buts) if we look into the affiliations of the guerrillas, things are not so clear cut. Plainly they were men, since the organizations, parties and trade unions were disinclined to devolve any fragment of power to womenfolk. It is true that there were lots of Communists, yes. But there were lots of anarchists as well. And socialists and republicans and Catalanist militants and gudaris (Basque nationalists). For instance, take the evidence of the Dordogne guerrilla Ralph Finkler: “There were Spaniards in every maquis unit in the Dordogne, many more of them than there were Frenchmen … initially I took them all for Communists. Later, much later, I saw that there were nuances and that there were anarchists, socialists, republicans and Catalans … when it came to fighting, though, they were all comrades.

I don’t know how many people follow this blog, but for the benefit of those who do, you will know that a few months ago I published a list of anarchists involved in the escape lines and resistance groups, serving in the UNE or with the Spanish guerrillas, or with French groups. [] At the time, that list included upwards of 800 names. That figure was already a huge leap forward in terms of anarchists inside the resistance and a rebuttal of the official history that conjured up a picture of a resistance that was Communist, with a sprinkling of folk from other persuasions. Since then, I have added another hundred names and that is not all. 

Much more importantly and, in my view, disgracefully, most of the names will be relegated to the oblivion to which they were consigned over 80 years ago. The fact is that from the official figures facts that the official historiography refuses to include are gradually being brought to light. For one thing the French are horrified by the prospect of having to concede the importance of foreign groups – be they Jews, Spaniards, Italians, Russians … but progress is slowly being made. And now we have to uproot the myth of Communist resistance. Without ever denying the significant number of Communists who took part, of course, and without denying that they tried to hijack all the powerful positions and damned nearly pulled it off.

So, if we add further entries to the nigh on 900 libertarians involved – names and surnames – then we also need to take a fresh look at things.

Historian Ferrán Sánchez some time ago ventured to estimate at 200 the number of anarchists serving with the UNE.  Then again, there are the figures provided by Miguel Pascual, one of the organizers of the National Union’s CNT Agrupación (ACUN) who suggests the figure of 6,000. My own estimate is neither so low nor so sanguine. Given the time that I have been looking into the matter in hand, I would gamble on there having been no less than 4,000 anarchists in the UNE’s ranks. Another point to be considered is a letter from Juanel (an opponent of the UNE) to Juan Ferrer (both men were prominent libertarian militants), dated December 1970; there we read: “In the throes of organizing the MLE with some comrades at the beginning of 1943, we made a timely retort to the National Union, which had already managed to draw in 5,000 of our comrades and looked likely to draw in a majority of them.” That letter can be found in the Gómez Peláez archive in Amsterdam and, as we can see, it referred to early 1943 and not to the time when the Resistance enjoyed its greatest power after June 1944.

And by way of bolstering this theory somewhat, here are a few additional facts.

To choose but a few examples, in the Xth UNE Brigade in the Basses Pyrénées department in September 1944, there were 76 CNT personnel, although I have details of just 14 of them. We also know of the existence of a group led by Carlos Manini which had a libertarian escape line and which was involved in the resistance and that group was made up of a dozen libertarians.

Coming to the XIth Hautes Pyrenees Brigade, Luis Pérez quotes a figure of 46 libertarians in the autumn of 1944, whereas the details of only 4 of them are included in my list. All the others have yet to be discovered. 

According to the version of Solidaridad Obrera produced by the ACUN in September 1944, there were already 120 CNT members south of the Pyrenees as part of the “Reconquista de España” operation; they were drawn from the 3rd Ariège Brigade. My list includes 25 names that can be connected to the ACUN, so the remainder are left to the imagination. In one of the most celebrated Communist groups, the “La Crouzette” maquis group, 37 out of the 147 members belonged to the CNT. Furthermore, in the Ariège there was the “Del Río Battalion”, made up essentially of Spanish anarchists who had refused to join the UNE; by August 1944, it had 146 members. And so it goes. There were a further 14 libertarians in the “Cuvino” group operating in the Canigó area, but I do not know whether or not they – aside from Cuvino – belonged to the UNE

Take the IXth Aveyron Brigade, to which the historian Antonio Téllez belonged: we know that apart from him there were a further 36 anarchists in it and we have the details of 21 of them, whereas nothing as yet is known of the remainder.

In the Dordogne department, José Cervera recruited 56 libertarian guerrillas who served with the UNE, only to quit that organization and join the anarchist Libertad Battalion.

So much for some of the details regarding libertarians inside the UNE, but in addition to them, a lot of anarchists joined French units in order to escape Communist control. Communist texts ordinarily make no mention at all of the involvement of those Spanish guerrillas.

We have no details regarding the 75 Spanish libertarians serving in the French maquis in the Cognac area.

15 libertarians in the Lot department were under the leadership of Francisco Minguillón. In the same department, 16 of the 30-member Kofra maquis group were Spanish libertarians.

160 libertarians from the various L’Aigle dam groups ended up serving in the Didier Battalion in the Cantal department. Thanks to information reaching us from that department, we know the names of almost 100 of its members.
The best-known unit was the Libertad Battalion which was set up in the summer of 1944, drawn from anarchist guerrillas who were refusing to join Communist groups or who had quit them; upwards of 300 of them fought up until May 1945 against the last remaining  pockets of German resistance in the Gironde. Members of the Gernika Battalion, made up of Basque gudaris, fought in those battles alongside them.

As far as the officers go, you can just imagine that the hierarchy of the Spanish Guerrillas Agrupación (Agrupación de Guerrilleros Españoles, AGE), the UNE’s armed wing, was populated almost exclusively by Communists. There were a few libertarian exceptions, though:

The Marie-Blanche maquis was led by the CNT’s Hilario Borau, known as el Riojano, as he came from Arnedo, was in charge of one of the groups in the Aude department; Eulogio Añoro aka el Maño headed the Querigut maquis; Miguel Vera led the Ebro Section in Haute Savoie; Miguel Arenas aka Victor operated in the Cévennes and, in one of life’s quirks, was one of the men who led the most renowned battle fought by Spanish guerrillas against the Nazis in France – the battle of La Madeleine. The PCE and its satellites always awarded the laurels to Cristino García, but García was wounded and unable to take part in the fight, so he had handed over command to Gabriel Pérez and Miguel Arcas. The correct version of things came to light only recently. To be sure, Cristino García was always open to working hand in glove with maquis subscribing to different ideologies, something that was not to the taste of the PCE. Carrillo got rid of García by dispatching him to his death in the Spanish interior. There was also Joaquín Ramos, one of the leaders of the 2nd Brigade operating in Toulouse and its environs. Later, following the death of resister Marcel Langer, Ramos was commissioned to lead his brigade, the 35th FTP (Franc-Tireurs et Partisans).

Of the two libertarian “Battalions” raised in the summer of 1944, Eduardo Vizcaya led the Del Río Battalion, whilst Liberto Sarrau headed the Libertad Battalion. 

On the other hand we find a number of anarchists leading groups unaffiliated to the UNE, and which were either unaligned or attached to French groups. Ramón Vila Capdevila was in charge of 200 men in the Haute Vienne. Casto Ballesta led 3 groups of Spanish guerrillas in the Limoges region, as well as being the main contact with the local French resistance. Miguel Barbosa, Juan Montoliu and José Germán were in charge of the L’Aigle dam groups in the Cantal department. El Maño led a group of Spanish libertarians near Fumel in the Lot-et-Garonne department. José Cervera also commanded a sizable group, the Belves maquis in the Dordogne. Manuel Serrano was in the same position in Lodeve. The commander of the Bort-les-Orgues dam maquis, essentially made up of Spanish libertarians, I do not know. Puig led the 35 libertarians from the Inphi group in the Nièvre. Carlos Manini led a dozen-strong group of men in Buzy, alternating between resistance efforts and running an escape line. Antonio Sanz was in charge of a group in the Isere. Constantino Simó aka Castagne was in charge of the Paul Bert maquis in the Yonne. 

To finish off, let it be said that the Spanish anarchists in the resistance reaped the benefits from two groups specializing in document forgery that placed their workshops at the disposal of the fight against Nazism. On the one hand there was that of Francisco Ponzán which operated in Toulouse up until 1943, and, on the other, the set-up of Laureano Cerrada Santos, which operated in Paris up until the city’s liberation. Cerrada’s team also made a speciality of raiding German arms dumps in order to build up the arsenal of the libertarian guerrilla war. 

El Salto, 27 July 2022 

Photo: Members of the Libertad Battalion after the liberation of the town of Tonneins, August 1944 [Source: Imanol]

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.