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The Devout and the Displaced: A new History of the International Brigades

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During the Civil War thousands of people from other countries volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against the insurgents led by General Franco. Most of these joined the International Brigades. Volunteers were usually recruited through the communist parties of their own countries and travelled to Spain by crossing the French frontier, often illegally, or by ship from Marseilles. There were about 35,000 volunteers, though fewer than half of these were involved at any one time. Recruits came from many countries, with the largest contingents from France, Poland, Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Although a small minority were writers, artists and intellectuals, most came from working-class backgrounds. Most had little military training or experience, and, on arrival in Spain, they were sent to Albacete for training. They fought in most of the major battles of the Civil War. On 8 February 1939, as Catalonia was occupied by Franco’s forces, the last Brigade units crossed the Spanish frontier into France. To mark this anniversary, we are publishing a review of a recent book on the International Brigades, which was published in English and Spanish last October: The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, by Giles Tremlett (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Apart from the memoirs of former brigaders, there have been many histories of the International Brigades. Most have focussed on volunteers from particular countries  – or, in some cases, on those from individual cities. What distinguishes this volume by Giles Tremlett, the former Madrid correspondent of The Guardian, is that it attempts to cover all of the brigaders, regardless of countries of origin. In this sense it is “international” but, unlike earlier accounts of this sort, it has benefited from the opening of the Russian State Archives, which the author has used extensively along with archives elsewhere including Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the USA.

The book is organised chronologically in a series of time-specific episodes, but many of these episodes are used to explore broader themes and issues. Although the Brigades were formally established in the autumn of 1936, Tremlett begins before that by including earlier volunteers. Most of these were in Barcelona at the time of the military coup in July 1936, when the city was preparing to celebrate the opening of the “Popular Olympics” (organised in protest at the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin). Some of the athletes were among the foreigners who joined the militias which fought to resist the army. Tremlett ends his account, following the military defeat of the Republic in early 1939, with a discussion of the post-war experiences of volunteers.  

People’s Olympiad Poster. Author: Lewy, Fritz, 1893-1950; Contributor: Centre Autonomista de Dependents del Comerç i de la Indústria. Source: CRAI Pavelló de la República (Universitat de Barcelona)

Tremlett’s research in the Soviet archives reveal that volunteers came from more countries than has previously been established – from sixty-five of the sovereign independent states then in existence. 

As he explains in the introduction, most volunteers came from two overlapping categories of people, which he calls “the devout” and “the displaced”. The devout were often, but not always, members of the Communist party. Party leaders attempted to vet volunteers on the basis of motivation, military experience, political views and physical fitness and over half of all volunteers were party members. 

However, in the 1930s Europe housed large numbers of political refugees from repressive regimes. Although the most recent of these were from Germany and Austria, there were also refugees escaping political repression and anti-semitism in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Longer established refugee communities included those who had fled the anti-semitic pogroms in the Czarist Empire and people displaced by the Russian Revolution and by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires at the end of the First World War. To these should be added economic migrants, especially following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression.  

The importance of such refugee communities for recruitment is clear from Tremlett’s account, particularly in the case of Polish volunteers. There were large Polish communities outside Poland, especially in France and Belgium. Only around twenty per cent of Polish brigaders were recruited directly from Poland, the remainder coming from as far away as Argentina. Some 350 Polish volunteers came from Belgium, of whom 131 were Jewish. Of the 1,900 volunteers from Belgium, 800 were, in fact, recent immigrants to that country. Jews accounted for about ten per cent of all volunteers, including 200 of those from Belgium. Volunteers from outside Europe also frequently came from migrant communities: the majority of Ukrainian volunteers, for instance, came from Canada. 

How important was the contribution of the Brigades towards the overall Republican war effort? Tremlett rightly avoids exaggerating their role. They played a crucial part in preventing Franco’s forces from taking Madrid in the winter of 1936-37. In the battles of Jarama in February 1937 and Guadalajara a few weeks later, they helped stop rebel attempts to surround the capital. They were used as shock troops throughout the war and deployed in most of the key battles. Foreign medical staff, often women, attached to the Brigades, played a crucial role in establishing and training the Republican forces’ medical services. The Brigades were, however, always deployed as part of the Republican army and their contribution was limited. They did not fight on the Northern Front, where the Basque Provinces, Santander and Asturias were isolated from the rest of Republican territory. As the war progressed and the Republic trained a new army, the relative importance of the Brigades declined. The five Brigades became decreasingly “international” as their ranks were augmented by Spanish troops and as some of the surviving brigaders  were deployed in the rearguard, in some cases training Spanish recruits. 

The Franco Regime and some historians outside Spain have portrayed the Brigades as a Communist army, under the control of Moscow. The importance of party members, especially among the officers and political commissars, is well known. But different units had different political characters :Tremlett portrays the German-speaking Thälmann Battalion as more thoroughly under Communist party leadership than the Garibaldi Battalion, whose leadership reflected the more diverse nature of Italian anti-Fascism. While figures such as the Frenchman André Marty and the Italian Luigi Longo played key roles at the Brigades’ base in Albacete, Soviet “advisors” occupied many of the leading military posts. The most important of these were not Russians but Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians, who operated under assumed names. These included the Hungarian Paul Lukacs, the Ukrainian Emilio Kléber and the Polish General Walter, all of whom had served in the Red Army. 

The Brigades suffered very high casualty rates –  about a quarter of volunteers from the United Kingdom, France and Canada were killed and Tremlett estimates overall deaths at about twenty per cent, with a high proportion of the survivors wounded. The reasons for this are clear from Tremlett’s account. Their use Brigades as shock-troops, especially in the early months when the Republic was struggling to train an army to replace the improvised militias who had resisted the military coup, meant that the brigaders were often thrown into battle with minimal training and with antiquated weaponry. Until their withdrawal in September 1938 they continued to be involved in much of the heaviest fighting, with resulting heavy casualties. Capture by Franco’s armies, especially during the Republican retreat in Aragon in early 1938, often resulted in immediate execution, though hundreds survived to be used in prisoner exchanges after being subjected to brutal treatment at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos. 

San Pedro de Cardeña (Burgos). 22 September 1938. International prisoners. Ministerio del Interior / Sección técnica. Biblioteca Nacional de España. Images licenced CC-BY.

The Brigades were withdrawn in September 1938 and given a formal farewell in a grand parade in Barcelona the following month, where famously they were addressed by “La Pasionaria” (Dolores Ibarruri). Their subsequent fates differed starkly, as Tremlett outlines in one of the most interesting chapters. Some brigaders, such as the British, US, French and Canadians made their way home, often to be treated with suspicion – in the 1950s they were accused of “premature anti-Fascism” in the USA. Their former comrades from Germany, Italy and other European dictatorships were often less fortunate. In January 1939, some 3,200 volunteers, mainly Germans, Italians, Poles and other east Europeans, were still in Spain because returning to their own countries would mean imprisonment or death. As Franco’s forces advanced on Barcelona they were called upon to return to the battlefield in a vain attempt to help avert military defeat.

By March 1939, following the fall of Catalonia, over 5,700 brigaders were detained in camps in France. Some would play important roles in the French Resistance, others would be deported to Nazi camps where few survived. Some of the Polish volunteers made the journey via North Africa to the USSR where Stalin recruited a Polish army against Germany. Former volunteers would also make important contributions elsewhere, notably in partisan forces operating in Italy and Yugoslavia, where all four of Tito’s partisan armies were led by former brigaders. Some of the Eastern Europeans survived to play important political roles after 1945, notably in the German Democratic Republic, where six former brigaders would become government ministers while others played key roles in the army and security forces. 

Over eighty years later how are we to view those who volunteered and risked their lives in the International Brigades? In the past many writers have seen them as heroic figures who left their homelands and risked death to stop the spread of Fascism. To the Franco Regime – and to Cold War warriors in the West – they were mere adventurers or an invading army of Marxists under the control of Moscow. Tremlett manages to avoid either characterisation, pointing out that they were not uniformly good people and that, as in any large group of people, they included cowards and psychopaths as well as those who were prepared to risk their lives in the pursuit of a noble cause. This recognition of the variety of the brigaders as well as the breadth of the sources used make this a genuinely international history of the Brigades which should be read by anyone interested in the Civil War or interwar Europe. 

The most comprehensive database on membership of the International Brigades is SIDBRINT of the Universitat de Barcelona, which includes a database of over 30,000 volunteers.

Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2020). 

ABOUT THE SAN PEDRO DE CARDEÑA PHOTO [Note added on 3 March 2021]: Our photo shows prisoners of war from the International Brigades giving the straight-armed Fascist salute. This was required of all prisoners – Spanish and non-Spanish – in San Pedro and in other prison camps. According to the American volunteer, Carl Geiser, who was imprisoned in San Pedro between April 1938 and February 1939 the imprisoned Brigaders – mainly British and American – agreed among themselves to give the Fascist salute to avoid the beatings which were given to prisoners who refused. He adds “the sergeants ignored sloppy salutes as long as the fist was not closed” (Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986, p. 129).  The obligation to give the Fascist salute, which was accompanied by the shout of the Dictator’s name, along with the beatings administered to prisoners, were among numerous contraventions by the military rebels of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. 

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MAIN PHOTO: Members of the XV International Brigade, possibly the English Battalion, being farewelled during the Battle of the Ebro in the football field of Marçà (Tarragona), October 1938. Author: Concern Illustrated Daily Courier – Illustration Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Atocha Massacre: 44 Years After

On 24 January 1977 three extreme-right terrorists stormed into the offices of labour lawyers working for the trade union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) in the Calle Atocha in Madrid. They opened fire murdering three of the lawyers, Enrique Valdelvira Ibáñez, Luis Javier Benavides Orgaz and Francisco Javier Sauquillo. They also killed a law student, Serafín Holgado, and an administrator, Ángel Rodríguez Leal. Four other people, Miguel Sarabia Gil, Alejandro Ruiz-Huerta Carbonell, Luis Ramos Pardo and Lola González Ruiz, were seriously wounded in the attack.

In a context of political violence, impunity for members of the far right and social unrest, the massacre led to a slow opening up of rights and liberties during the transition towards constitutional democracy which followed the death of Franco in November 1975. The aim of the massacre had been to destabilise the fragile government of Adolfo Suárez. However, instead of provoking violence, this terrible terrorist attack united the forces of the left: over 100,000 people silently accompanied the funeral cortège.

«Forever remembered for the freedom for which you gave your lives (Hasta siempre en la libertad por la que disteis la vida)», was the headline in Mundo Obrero, the daily newspaper of the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party following the funeral. Less than three months later, on 9 April 1977, the Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez ordered the legalisation of the Communist Party.

Decades later the importance of the massacre is clear, as well as that of the roles played by other Atocha lawyers, colleagues of those murdered, in the defence of civil rights and their role in our democratic system. The memory of those murdered is also preserved by the Fundación Abogados de Atocha (Atocha Lawyers Foundation) and by the Comisiones Obreras, who have collaborated in the recent publication of a book which we consider to be important, opportune and worthy of review here.

As is well known, Manuela Carmena avoided the massacre because the meeting she was attending had been moved to an office in a nearby building. One of the other people who attended the meeting with Carmena was Juan José del Águila as he recalls on justiciaydictadura. com

The Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP) and its role in the repression of the later Francoist period

Now retired, Juan José del Águila, was a labour lawyer who later became a labour court magistrate  In 2001 Editorial Planeta published the first edition of the book El Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP). La represión de la libertad, written by him, which was fundamental for our understanding of the political repression carried out by the Tribunal de Orden Público (Tribunal of Public Order) in the later years of the Franco Regime.

The book was well received within a specialised readership and the author was invited to speak about it by various institutions, including the Colegio de Abogados of Madrid, the Ateneo, the Club de Amigos of UNESCO as well as the Employment and Training Agency of the Unión Sindical Madrid Región (USMR) of Comisiones Obreras. This latter meeting took place in what are now the offices of the Fundación de Abogados de Atocha. The book must have made uncomfortable reading for many people who were named in it; despite selling well, it was withdrawn by the publishers and any remaining copies were destroyed.

Fortunately the author has written an updated second edition, incorporating new judicial material, which is now on sale in bookshops.

This new edition has been reviewed by Enrique Lillo for the blog Según Antonio Baylos [Madrid, 6 November 2020], together with the previous introductory text. We wish to thank both for their kind permission which allows us to republish it here. 


by Enrique Lillo Pérez

This book has been edited by the Fundación Abogados de Atocha, which was founded by the Unión Sindical de Madrid Región CCOO, and has received support from the following: the Ministerio de la Presidencia, Relaciones con las Cortes y Memoria Democrática of the Spanish Government; the Consejo General de la Abogacía; the Ilustre Colegio de Abogados of Madrid; and, obviously, CCOO Madrid. 

This second edition includes a prologue written by Dr. María Emilia Casas Baamonde, Emeritus President of the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal and Professor of Labour Law and Social Security (Presidenta Emérita del Tribunal Constitucional y Catedrática del Derecho del Trabajo y Seguridad Social) at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. 

Juan José del Águila is a labour lawyer and expert in criminal law, who regularly defended those prosecuted by the Tribunal de Orden Público.

He has studied extensively the repression of the Francoist Dictatorship and is an expert on the repressive mechanisms and institutions which it employed. These include the following: public officials (funcionarios públicos); the secret police (Brigada Político Social); military institutions (special military courts established for the repression of freemasonry and communism, as well as those dealing with extremist activities, courts martial and military judicial authorities such as the Captaincies-General of the Military Regions); and judicial institutions (the Tribunal de Orden Público). His research uncovered the chronological antecedents of the latter, including the magistrates’ courts of February 1956 and May 1957, presided over by examining magistrates from Madrid and which had been established by the Governing Council of the Supreme Tribunal (Sala de Gobierno del Tribunal Supremo) under the Presidency of José Castan Tobeñas, and which were given powers to carry out summary trials of those accused of the offences of attending illegal meetings, publishing clandestine material and carrying out illegal propaganda).

This book is required reading for any citizen who wishes to understand, as part of our historical and democratic memory, the institutional mechanisms used in the Francoist repression by means of the torture carried out by members of the Brigada Político Social and by members of other public and military bodies, as well as the prison sentences imposed by the institutions listed above in summary courts martial without any procedural guarantees whatsoever, including the massive numbers of death sentences were imposed.

These are essential requirements for a system of justice to operate objectively and impartially and to conform with the strict principle of legality by making judgements on the basis of valid supporting evidence established by means of an oral judicial procedure and allowing opportunities for the defence of the accused  

The analysis provided by Juanjo del Águila is exhaustive and is presented with a high level of historical and judicial rigour. The same rigour is also to be found in material published on his personal blog  which is indispensable reading for understanding the reality of the political repression and institutional violence of the Franco Dictatorship and the mechanisms and institutions used in the process as well as being essential to enable us to recover a historical and democratic memory in Spain.

In her prologue  María Emilia Casas asserts the fundamental importance of the reissue of this book, which will now fills the gap which should have been occupied by the first edition published by Editorial Planeta and which included a prologue written by Gregorio Peces Barba.

The publication of this new edition establishes Juan José del Águila as one of the most authoritative voices in the historiography of the special jurisdictions which existed under the exceptional powers (ordenamiento de excepción) which operated under the Franco Dictatorship and he is, without any doubt, the authority on the Tribunal de Orden Público. He has studied in detail and publicised the activities of the Tribunal and the prison sentences it imposed on many people, along with the role played by the Brigada Politico Social, whose statements and reports, although extracted through torture, were never questioned by the Tribunal, but were invariably accepted.

The book includes an examination of the case of Julián Grimau, who was executed by firing squad in April 1963 following a summary court martial carried out without due process of law, the death sentence being confirmed by the then-supreme military judicial authority, the Captain-General of Madrid, General García Valiño, without any kind of opportunity for appeal. The decision to impose the death sentence was expressly confirmed by Franco and his government, ignoring the numerous petitions for a pardon, including one from the Pope Pablo VI, and in spite of the fine and well-argued defence of Grimau presented by Alejandro Rebollo, the military officer assigned to defend him.

The detention of Julián Grimau, an experienced leader of the Spanish Communist Party, led not only to his torture but to a lot of dishonest stories. One of these, published in contemporary newspapers such as the daily newspaper ABC, falsely claimed that Julián Grimau had attempted to commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the offices of the Dirección General de Seguridad and that this accounted for the multiple injuries from which he was suffering as a result of the torture he had endured.

After detailed and careful examination of the evidence and, after reading the political memoirs of Fraga Iribarne [Note: at the time Minister of Information and Tourism] as well as other historical sources, Juanjo del Águila comes to the conclusion that, as a result of the efforts of Franco and his most devoted and fanatical colleagues, the announcement of the projected law establishing the Tribunal de Orden Público. was maliciously delayed until after the Grimau case. The new law would have transferred the case from a court martial under military jurisdiction to the new tribunal and therefore it was agreed to keep news of its approval by the government from being announced until after the execution or murder of Julián Grimau, which thus became a state crime. 

Had the projected law establishing the Tribunal de Orden Público been introduced on the date which Fraga gives in his memoirs, then the Grimau case, which had been carried out under military jurisdiction, firstly by the involvement of a military officer, Colonel Eymar as an examining magistrate prosecuting cases for the suppression of extremist and communist activities, and then, by means of a Court Martial carried out in the Madrid Military Region, it would have have been necessary to stop the entire case and to transfer it to the new tribunal, even though this had not yet begun to operate. 

To avoid this, the Franco government deliberately delayed the approval of the projected law establishing the tribunal and the date on which it would begin to operate, thus ensuring that the death sentence on Julián Grimau would be imposed and carried out. 

In addition to this delay in the official approval date of the proposed law, which, according to the documentary sources consulted by the author, maliciously perverted the course of justice in the Grimau case, the book reveals other vital aspects of the case, such as the use of supposedly anonymous accusations made against Julián Grimau which were made after his detention and torture by the Brigada Político Social of Barcelona and which formed the basis for his death sentence by attributing to him criminal actions allegedly carried out during the Civil War.

Juanjo del Águila also describes the role of Ruiz Jiménez, a member (procurador) of the Francoist Cortes, who proposed an amendment for the total rejection of the proposed law, invoking in his support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” issued by John XXIII (Cardinal Roncalli) a few days earlier on 11 April 1963.

Juanjo del Águila’s research also provides the basis for a sociological description of the treatment of citizens who were prosecuted and sentenced by the Tribunal de Orden Público. The accused were habitually held in prison during the investigation instead of being granted provisional liberty and, once they had been sentenced, the sentence was applied even during any appeal for annulment to the penal chamber of the Tribunal Supremo. In addition, the Tribunal de Orden Público allowed the reports and notes provided by the Brigada Político Social to be used on their own as valid evidence, ignoring the judicial requirement that evidence in penal hearings should be limited to material presented at an oral court hearing and not based upon previous reports by government agencies.

In a sociological account of people who appeared before the Tribunal the author analyses the large numbers of manual labourers, skilled workers, trade unionists, professionals and students who were victims of the repression. Many of them were neither politically militant nor members of organised trade unions, but rather were people who had merely participated in labour disputes or activities aimed at improving the existing minimal standards of living, or who had expressed their opinions during a meeting, or who had participated in protest demonstrations, or who had outlined their problems orally or in writing.

It is clear, therefore, that the role of the Tribunal de Orden Público was one of repression and punishment by imprisonment of people who attempted to exercise the fundamental individual or collective rights which already in the 1960s and 1970s were protected by international human rights declarations or by the international conventions of the International Labour Organisation (including rights to union membership and freedom of expression and of information, as well as the right to collective bargaining and to take collective action to seek improvements in working conditions).

The Tribunal de Orden Público was composed of members of the judicial profession and the author analyses the contribution of the higher judicial echelons of the dictatorship and of the Tribunal Supremo in the implementation of the repression.  

This role of validating and applying the repressive measures adopted was not only played by members of the Tribunal de Orden Público. Many of those judges who rose during the political transition after the death of Franco to sit on the Supreme Court had participated in the repression, as had those who became members of the penal chamber of the Supreme Court. One of these was Adolfo de Miguel who became President of this chamber and who, in 1981-82 was the defence lawyer for General Milans del Bosch, one of the key figures in the attempted military coup of February 1981.

These historical events must not be forgotten, because they are part of the democratic and historical memory of the struggle against the Franco Dictatorship, which always enjoyed the support not only of the military command, but also of those who controlled the judicial system, the prosecutory bodies and the police forces, especially the Brigada Político Social.

It is important, finally, to point out that, unlike other European countries in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain did not enjoy a so-called “golden age” of workers’ rights and social security, such as was consolidated in the rest of Western Europe after the victory over Nazism in the Second World War.

Spain, by contrast, endured many years of poverty and misery and these collective and human rights were not recognised during the years of the Dictatorship.

During these years the activities of the opposition were remarkable, exemplary and epic in character and it is important that recognition is given today of the efforts of sectors of civil society including many workers, trade unionists especially those of the Comisiones Obreras, students and skilled and professional workers to demand their rights and to defend them as well as to claim the freedoms and equality which are part of a democratic society. In the context of these remarkable and exemplary activities, those who worked as labour lawyers, among them Juanjo del Águila, through their defence of workers in the labour tribunals of the Francoist Regime (Magistratura de Trabajo) and in defending labourers, trade unionists, students and skilled workers in the Tribunal de Orden Público played a role which should not be forgotten and which forms a part of the democratic and historical memory of Spain. 

This book, therefore, is essential reading and should be widely read.

[Translation by Charlie Nurse]

PHOTO: The funeral cortège of those killed in the Atocha Massacre, 26 January 1977. Photographer unknown. Public domain.

The Burgos Showtrial of 1970

The court martial of sixteen alleged members of ETA in Burgos in December 1970 provoked demonstrations and strikes in Spain and protests across Europe and elsewhere. These were used by the hardline Francoists of the so-called bunker to attack the “modernisers” of Opus Dei in the Spanish government and to pressure Franco for a return to the severe repression of the post-war years. The trial, in open sessions attended by foreign journalists, and the ensuing crisis also undermined the image the dictatorship had carefully nurtured abroad of a benevolent regime presiding over the modernisation of Spain. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the trial, on 3 December 1970, we are publishing this account of the crisis and its significance in the history of the Franco Regime. 

Although the origins of ETA can be traced to the early 1950s, it was only in the late 1960s that the group launched a series of violent attacks on targets in the Spanish Basque Provinces. In relation to  the Burgos Trial the most important of these occurred in 1968. In June a Guardia Civil officer was killed in a shoot-out and in August Melitón Manzanas, the head of the San Sebastian Brigada Politico-Social (the regime’s political police force), was murdered on his doorstep in Irun. A State of Emergency (Estado de Excepción) was imposed in Guipuzkoa and police action across the Basque provinces led to the mass detention of suspects. Throughout 1969 and 1970 the accused were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment by courts martial in Burgos (the capital of the Sixth Military Region) for offences such as distributing ETA propaganda and attending illegal meetings. 

During the 1960s the Franco regime had attempted to present an image abroad very different from its brutal origins in the Civil War and the post-war repression. Foreign journalists such as George Hills received the regime’s cooperation in presenting Franco as a benevolent family man.  The US journalist Benjamin Welles, for example, reported Franco wearing “black and white sports shoes and a summer suit” when he interviewed him in July 1962 (Benjamin Welles, The Gentle Anarchy, 1965, p. 369). 

The contrast with events in Burgos could not have been greater. In most countries courts martial were – and are  –  restricted to military personnel accused of military offences. In Spain, by contrast, martial law had been proclaimed by the military rebels in July 1936 and was not lifted until 1948. During and after the Civil War courts martial, often lasting a few minutes, issued heavy sentences including the death penalty, on thousands of people whose legal representation was performed by army officers [See Summary Military Proceedings]. Even after martial law ended, military courts continued in use for offences which in other countries would be dealt with by civil courts, particularly for those accused under the 1960 Decree on Military Rebellion, Banditry and Terrorism

Tension rose in Spain ahead of the trial. On 22 November the Bishops of Bilbao and San Sebastian issued a joint pastoral letter declaring all violence illegitimate and calling for any death sentences imposed in the trial to be commuted. Strikes broke out across the Basque Country and elsewhere in Spain. On 30 November, in scenes unprecedented since the Civil War, protesters in Barcelona occupied Plaza Catalunya and fought police in the Ramblas. On the following day, the kidnapping by ETA of Eugen Beihl, the Honorary West German Consul in San Sebastian, attracted attention across Europe. 

The week-long trial was attended by seven Spanish journalists, whose accounts closely supported the regime, and thirteen foreign correspondents. The sixteen defendants included two women and two priests. Their lawyers, who won the admiration of foreign correspondents for their courage, helped the defendants to advertise the goals of ETA and denounce police torture. The prosecution case focussed on the murder of Manzanas and was largely based on confessions extracted under torture. When questioning of the defendants began on the third day, they withdrew their confessions, gave graphic descriptions of their torture and denounced state repression of the Basques. This led to the next day’s hearing being suspended and when the trial resumed the defendants were prevented from making general statements or deviating from the questions. The reaction to this by the final defendant to be questioned, Mario Onaindia, was described by the French journalist Edouard de Blaye:

Shouting Gora Euskadi Askatuta (“Long live the Free Basque Country”), the prisoner leapt on to the platform and tried to grab an axe which lay among the ‘exhibits’ heaped on the floor. Alarmed, two of the magistrates drew their swords. One of the policemen raised his revolver and aimed it at the prisoner, but then lowered it for fear of hitting the judges. Onaindia, knocked over and pinioned, was quickly rendered helpless. Meanwhile, in the courtroom, uproar was at its height. The fifteen prisoners, chained together, plunged into an unequal struggle with the warders in charge of them. When they, too, had been overcome, they began to sing in chorus the old Basque anthem Euzko gudarik gera…From the public benches shouts arose: ‘Murderers! Long live ETA!’

Edouard de Blaye, Franco and the Politics of Spain, 1976, pp. 296-7.

The court was cleared and when the trial resumed in camera the proceedings were very brief. The defence lawyers refused to call the 25 witnesses whom they had planned to present. In his speech, the prosecutor called for death sentences on six of the accused and 752 years imprisonment.  

For the next three weeks the seven judges considered their verdict behind closed doors. While Beihl was held hostage in a secret location in France and the prisoners awaited the verdicts, tension increased across Spain. On 12 December 300 leading Catalan cultural figures locked themselves inside the abbey at Montserrat and issued a protest manifesto before leaving on 14 December to prevent the abbey being stormed. The Vatican and several European governments called for clemency. 

The Francoist hardliners also reacted. On 14 December, following a meeting of top army officers, a delegation of four Captains-General visited Franco at El Pardo to express the military’s concern at the situation. Hours later habeas corpus was suspended, allowing the indefinite detention of prisoners. Against a background of protest meetings across Europe, a large pro-Franco demonstration was organised in the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid on 16 December and rural labourers were bussed into the city for the event. On the following days similar pro-regime demonstrations occurred in other major cities. The spectacle of large crowds giving Fascist salutes and singing Cara el Sol (the Falangist anthem) – scenes reminiscent of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – added to the shock felt across Western Europe. Film of the demonstration in Madrid was shown on the no-do newsreels to cinema audiences in Spain [see the no-do here]. 

On Christmas Day, with no decision from the judges, ETA released Eugen Biehl. Three days later the verdicts were finally announced. One of the sixteen defendants was acquitted, six were sentenced to death, three of them receiving two death sentences, and the remainder shared a total of over 500 years imprisonment. After a cabinet meeting two days later Franco announced his decision to commute the death sentences

The crisis marked an important stage in what would prove to be the break-up of the Franco regime as, with an eye to the impending death of the dictator, the bunker rallied against supporters of “modernisation” of the regime. As Paul Preston has written,

The regime’s clumsiness had united the opposition as never before, the Church was deeply critical and the more progressive Francoists were beginning to abandon what they saw as a sinking ship.

Preston, Franco, 1993, p. 754

The trial was also a public relations disaster, reminding people and governments across Western Europe and in the Americas of the origins of the dictatorship and its continuing repressive and violent character. Follow these links for film of the demonstrations in London and Paris

All fifteen prisoners were released under the 1977 Amnesty Law. Three of those sentenced to death would later play significant roles in Spanish politics. Between 1993 and 2000 Mario Onaindia represented Euskadiko Ezkerra in the Cortes after serving in the Basque parliament, where both Eduardo Uriarte and Jokin Goristidi served, Uriarte between 1980 and 1988 for Euskadiko Ezkerra and Goristidi between 1980 and 1994 for Herri Batasuna. In addition, Itziar Aizpurua, sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, represented Herri Batasuna in the Basque parliament from 1982 to 1986 and 1994 to 1998 and in the Cortes between 1986 and 1993.  

Three of the defence lawyers also enjoyed parliamentary careers after Franco’s death. Gregorio Peces Barba, a Socialist deputy between 1977 and 1986, was a member of the parliamentary commission which drafted the 1978 Constitution and President of the Cortes between 1982 and 1986.  Juan María Bandrés represented Euskadiko Ezkerra as a senator between 1977 and 1979 and then in the Cortes between 1979 and 1989. Josep Solé Barberà served in the Cortes for the Communist Party between 1979 and 1982.  

IMAGE: El Diario de Burgos. Biblioteca Digital de Castilla y León.

Barcelona: 800 Days under the Bombs

Tuesday 10 November –  At a quarter past ten at night feelings of alarm spread across the city as the sound of heavy gunfire in the distance. The official explanation given was that a coastguard vessel had opened fire at a suspicious vessel which was sailing without lights. 

The year: 1936. The city: Barcelona. The author: the journalist Tomás Caballé i Clos in his book Barcelona roja. Dietario de la revolución (julio 1936 – enero 1939).  This account, recording the first attempt to bomb the city, is confirmed by the journal of a sailor on the rebel Nationalist cruiser Canarias, which is cited by Joan Vilarroya in Els bombardeigs de Barcelona durant la Guerra Civil (1936-1939) [PAMSA, 1999]. 

The Interactive Map

To mark the 79º anniversary of the first nighttime aerial bombing of the city of Barcelona, in 2016 the data-laboratory BTVDatalab of Barcelona Televisió created an interactive map which analysed the data available dealing with the bombing of the city, its air-raid shelters and the victims. Since 2017 Innovation and Human Rights has maintained this material online. Now 84 years after the event, we wish to commemorate this first attempt to bomb Barcelona from the air.   

The interactive map allows the user to examine the data in three different ways: firstly on a contemporary map of the city, taken from the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona and originally drawn in 1930 by Vicenç Martorell; secondly on a present-day map of Barcelona; and finally on a satellite image of the city.

As well as locating more than 500 exact locations where bombs fell, largely carried out by the Italian Airforce (Aviazione Legionaria)  under the orders of the rebel armed forces, the map shows the location of the main air raid shelters which were built under Barcelona by the Junta de Defensa Pasiva (Civil Defence Committee) and the city’s inhabitants. 

The sites where bombs fell were located by using the material in Perill de bombardeig (2004) by Santiago and Elisenda Albertí, who used documents of the Junta de Defensa Pasiva which are held in the Arxiu Municipal Contemporani de Barcelona. With regard to the air raid shelters, the map shows the 1,354 shelters which have been catalogued by the Municipal Council (Ajuntament de Barcelona) and which are shown on their Archaeological Map. To explore the interactive map, click on the headline or here .

The video 

The three-minute long video provides an audiovisual summary of the 19 most deadly aircraft bombings of Barcelona during the Civil War. The attacks are presented in chronological order and indicate the number of victims. As a result of the work of historians such as Joan Vilarroya we know that these totalled 2,404.  Of these, 2071 victims have been identified by name and they have been included in the IHR centralised database of those killed during the Civil War and the Franco Regime. 

View the Barcelona: 800 days under the bombs video on a computer but not by a mobile phone. 

The Online Exhibition 

Barcelona: 800 días bajo las bombas” is an online exhibition which further explores the memory of the victims and the human cost of the Civil War on the city. At present it is only available in Italian.  Follow this link for access .

The exhibition includes the following sections: life histories of seven of the victims; the first naval bombardment of the city; the first aircraft bombardments of the city; the most severe bombardments (in March 1938);  The Italian Airforce (Aviazione legionaria italiana) and the anti-aircraft defence of the city. 

[English translation: Charlie Nurse]

Photo: Air attack on Barcelona on 17 March 1938, viewed from one of the Italian bombers.   Public domain.

The red Duchess

During the Civil War the Spanish Republic received support from many people in other countries. One of the most unexpected of these supporters was probably the Duchess of Atholl, an aristocratic member of the British parliament. To mark the 60th anniversary of her death, on 21 October 1960, IHR is publishing this post which highlights the Duchess’s support for the Republic and illustrates the breadth of support the Republic received from across the world. 

Born into a Scottish aristocratic family in 1874, Katharine Marjory Ramsay became Duchess of Atholl in 1917 when her husband inherited the Dukedom. In her youth she had trained as a pianist at the Royal College of Music in London, but, after her marriage she dedicated herself to public service. Before 1914 she was a member of a committee which examined the problems of providing health services in the sparsely-populated Scottish highlands and islands. During the First World War she helped to organise nursing services for the British army. 

In 1923 she was elected to parliament as Conservative MP for Kinross & West Perthshire, the Scottish constituency which included Blair Atholl, the family estate and which had previously been represented by her husband.  She was quickly promoted and from 1924 to 1929 she was  a junior minister for Education, only the second woman to become a British government minister. There was some irony in this: women had received the vote in 1918, but before 1914 she had outspokenly opposed giving women the vote, arguing that they were not yet sufficiently educated. 

In the late 1920s her attention shifted to international issues. She supported a campaign to prevent female genital mutilation in the British colonies in East Africa and she became concerned over developments in the USSR: her book The Conscription of A People (1931) exposed and denounced Soviet forced-labour practices. Despite her hostility to the USSR she decided, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, that Nazi Germany was a greater to threat to European peace. This influenced her support for the Spanish Republic after the failure of the attempted military coup in July 1936.  

In his memoirs Men and Politics, published in 1941, the U.S. journalist Louis Fischer gave this assessment of her contribution to the British campaign in support of the Republic

“In her old-fashioned black silk dress that fell to her shoe tops she would sit on the platform, at Spain meetings, with Communists, left-wing socialists, working men and disabled International Brigaders and appeal for help for the Republicans. She would interrogate everybody who had been to Spain and hang on their words and note many of them in a book filled with her illegible scrawl.”

Men and Politics, pp 440-441

She became Chair of the Joint National Committee for Spanish Relief (NJC), which was set up in November 1936 to coordinate the work of the myriad groups established in Britain to provide humanitarian aid to the Republic.  As Chair she worked with people from a wide range of backgrounds and with political views very different from her own, including Ellen Wilkinson and Leah Manning, both of whom were left-wing members of the Labour Party, and Isabel Brown, a prominent member of the British Communist party.  In  April 1937 a parliamentary delegation of Atholl, Wilkinson and the Independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, visited Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. In Valencia they met Italian soldiers who had been taken prisoner while fighting alongside Franco’s forces at the Battle of Guadalajara (March 1937). Madrid was under heavy artillery bombardment but they were taken to watch the fighting in the Casa del Campo.  Shortly after their return she became Chair of the Basque Children’s Committee, which organised the evacuation of nearly 4,000 children from Bilbao and accommodated them in Britain, as we explained in “Expedición a Inglaterra”: The Basque Children in Britain.  

Her support for the Republic led right-wing newspapers in Britain to call her the “Red Duchess”, but she was a very conservative figure and a strong supporter of the British Empire. In 1935 she had temporarily resigned from the Conservative party in parliament in protest at legislation to introduce local self-government in the British colony of India, as she feared this would lead to Indian independence.  Louis Fischer, whom she invited to tea in the House of Commons in 1937, concluded “she is no radical” (Men and Politics, page 440). 

Her support for the Republic led to her book on the Civil War, Searchlight on Spain, which was published as a paperback in June 1938, selling over 100,000 copies within a month. By contrast George Orwell’s now-famous Homage to Catalonia sold  under a thousand copies when published a few months earlier.  Orwell reviewed Searchlight on Spain for the magazine Time and Tide in July 1938 and described it as “a short popular history of the Spanish war” which was “simply written and well-documented” (“Orwell in Spain”, 2001, page 304)  

Searchight on Spain included a chapter on “Insurgent Spain” which, she admitted, she had been unable to visit; basing her comments “on books of others who had visited” (Searchlight on Spain, page xi) she stressed the widespread repression and the refusal of the insurgent authorities to allow independent reporting.  In her final chapter she concluded :

“The barbarities that will be perpetrated if Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid fall into the hands of the insurgents are likely to baffle description. If the Spanish Republicans are crushed, it means the end of liberty, justice and culture, and the merciless extermination of all suspected of caring for those things”.

Searchlight on Spain, page 316

She also stressed the dangers of an insurgent victory in the event of a wider European war which, by 1938, looked increasingly likely. She pointed out that France would be surrounded by three hostile powers (Germany, Italy and Spain), and she highlighted the dangers to Britain, warning – accurately as events would prove during the Second World War – of the threat to British shipping from German submarines refuelling along the coast of Galicia.  

Her fears over Nazi Germany had been increased by visits in 1937-1938 to several central European states. These included Austria,  where she went shortly before the Nazi annexation of March 1938, and Czechoslovakia, which she visited in July 1938. Two months after this visit, in September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister and Edouard Daladier, the French Premier, agreed at Munich to Hitler’s demands to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. When the Agreement was signed she was on a tour of Canada and the United States, where she travelled widely speaking at public meetings in support of a campaign to raise money for food ships to be sent to the Spanish Republic. 

By this time her support for the Spanish Republic and her criticism of British foreign policy had led to her expulsion from the governing Conservative party.  After the Munich Agreement she resigned from parliament to provoke a by-election in her constituency, in which she stood as a candidate.  Her only opponent was from the  Conservative party because both the Labour and Liberal parties withdrew their candidates and supported her. Her campaign focussed on her criticism of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and of the Non-Intervention Agreement which prevented the Spanish Republican government from buying weapons legally. She received support from prominent members of the British literary and artistic establishment, including Gerald Brenan and Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell, both of whom had been living in Malaga when the Civil War broke out.  Winston Churchill, another opponent of the Munich Agreement, phoned her regularly – but avoiding visiting the campaign. Voting, on 21 December after two days of heavy snow, resulted in her being narrowly defeated. This ended her political career, but not her support for the Spanish Republic or for human rights.

In January 1939 she was one of the signatories to a joint letter to The Times which called for the Republican government to be allowed to buy weapons legally. After the defeat of the Republic she visited the camps in Southern France where hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees were confined and, in May 1939, she travelled to the French port of Sête to witness the departure of the Sinaia, which the NJC had chartered to transport Republican refugees to Mexico. 

After the Second World War she helped to establish the British League for European Freedom which she chaired. The League campaigned to expose the human rights situation in Eastern Europe after it came under Soviet domination. Her memoirs, Working Partnership, were published in 1958, two years before her death. Surprisingly perhaps, she had relatively little to say about her work in support of the Spanish Republic.  However, as Louis Fischer had observed in 1941,

“she had gone to Madrid and thenceforth worked as hard for Loyalist Spain as anyone in the realm”. 

Men and Politics, page 440

Photo: Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray (née Ramsay), Duchess of Atholl by Howard Coster. Half-plate film negative, 1938. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x12264. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

In Spain there is no such thing as a single “General Archive of the Civil War (or a need for one) (Part 2)

Henar Alonso @henararch – Archivist (Técnica Facultativa Superior de Archivos). Ministry of Defence.

This article is a continuation of the earlier one  In Spain there is no such thing as a single “General Archive of the Civil War” (or a need for one)

The two main archives which are fundamental for any research on the Civil War and the repression during the Franco Dictatorship are the  Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica de Salamanca (CDMH) y el Archivo General Militar de Ávila (AGMAV), both of which were discussed in Part 1. However, these are not the only archives which contain documentary sources which are of interest for researchers. 

Within the Sistema Archivístico de la Defensa (Defence Archive System), which covers the archives managed by the Ministry of Defence, those which are particularly relevant are the Archivo General e Histórico de la Defensa (General and Historical Defence Archive) as well as the other historical archives of the separate arms of the armed forces, namely those of the Army (Ejército de Tierra), Air Force (Ejército del Aire) and of the Navy (Armada).  Among these archives the following are especially important: 

Archivo General e Histórico de la Defensa (AGHD)

The most important part of the General and Historical Defence Archive are the records of the summary courts martial of the Territorial Military Tribunal which covered Military Territory No. 1 (TMT1). The lists of those prosecuted (listados de encausados) by the army have been indexed and are available online in relation to the provinces of Albacete, Alicante, Castellón, Madrid and Valencia.  These are of primary importance for research into the repression which followed the Civil War. 

The records of the summary courts martial carried out by all of the Territorial Military Tribunals may be found by following this link to the Guía para la localización de los procedimientos judiciales incoados por la Justicia Militar a raíz de la Guerra Civil y durante la etapa franquista (Guide to the location of the judicial proceedings initiated by the Military Justice system as a result of the Civil War and the Franco period).  However, at the moment only the records of people prosecuted in TMT No. 3 and TMT No 4 are available. Those for TMT No. 4, covering the northwest of Spain, are available via this link  sumarísimos que se conservan en el Archivo Intermedio Militar Noroeste . For those for TMT No. 3, covering Catalonia, follow this link  Cataluña . The records of all of those prosecuted in the courts martials in TMT No. 1,  TMT No. 3 y TMT No. 4 are included in the database of  The Air Force Historical Archive (Archivo Histórico del Ejército del Aire) also provides online access to the records of those members of the Republican Air Force who were prosecuted  as well as the records relating to the purging of civilian personnel who had worked in the service of  Republican military aviation.

Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara (AGMG)

The General Military Archive of Guadalajara holds the archives and personal files of two types of forced labour battalions established for former Republican soldiers as part of the Francoist repression, namely the Batallones Disciplinarios de Soldados Trabajadores (Disciplinary Labour Battalions for Soldiers) and the  Batallones Disciplinarios de Soldados Trabajadores Penados (Disciplinary Labour Battalions for Convicted Soldiers) , as well as those of the military prisons and of the Concentration Camps of  Miranda de Ebro and Alcazaba de Zeluán (near Melilla). They may be consulted online via the introductory index of the Archive.  The database of includes part of the AGMG index of  138,000 members of these two types of forced labour battalions, including the 3,000 sentenced soldiers from the so-called 1ª Agrupación, as well as those from the Montjuïc military  prison in Barcelona (more than 3,000), and from the Zeluán concentration camp (1,000).

There are also collections of archives relating to the Civil War and the Franco Dictatorship to be found elsewhere in the state archives (Archivos de la Administración General del Estado).  These include not only the national history archives which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture (Ministerio de Cultura) but also the historical archives of the various government ministries. Without attempting to be exhaustive, we would underline the importance of the following:

Archivo Histórico Nacional (AHN)

In the National Historical Archive, among the contemporary archive collections of the Judicial System (Poder Judicial) there is documentation relating to the Popular Tribunals and Emergency Courts (Tribunales Populares y Jurados de Urgencia y de Guardia de Madrid), established under the Republican government in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup of July 1936).  Following the defeat of the Republic these documents were included in the Causa General (the Francoist prosecution; see Part 1) as supporting evidence.  In the Personal Archive section there are personal archives dealing with some of the major political and military figures relevant to the conflict, including Manuel Azaña, Vicente Rojo, Diego Martínez Barrio, José Giral…

Archivo General de la Administración (AGA)

The General Archive of Administration, in Alcalá de Henares, holds two small but very interesting collections of material, namely those of the  Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid (the Defence Junta which ran Madrid under siege from Francoist forces between November 1936 and April 1937) and those of the  Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, (the Defence Ministry of the Republic between 1936 and 1939). There is also a large collection of archive material from the central, regional and local bodies of the so-called “Movimiento Nacional” (the name given to the single legal political “movement” authorised in Francoist Spain) which is indispensable for social research on the postwar period and the Franco Regime. Although the AGA is categorised as an “archivo intermedio” (an intermediary archive which is supposed to transfer all of its archive material to the AHN for permanent storage), it holds such a large amount of documentary material on public organisations during the Civil War and the Franco period, much of it not yet examined, that it is currently impossible to provide a clear picture of its value. However the archives from the civil war and postwar periods of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Relations (Interior y Asuntos Exteriores  are particularly relevant.

Sistema de Archivos del Ministerio del Interior

The Archive System of the Ministry of the Interior, in spite of the difficulty of gaining access, has some particularly interesting archive collections, especially those of the Dirección General de la Guardia Civil, the  Dirección General de Seguridad/Dirección General de la Policía and those of the prisons and penal system (Direcciones Generales de Presidios/Prisiones/Instituciones Penitenciarias). 

So, if I want to carry out research on the Spanish Civil War do I have to consult all of the archives? No – not if you know what you want to do and not if you know where the sources you need to consult are located.   To help you to do this, we offer you a 

Quick Guide on How to Find Documentary Sources on the Civil War in the Spanish Archives

I would like to carry out research on…

1. Military aspects of the Civil War

Archivo General Militar de Ávila; Archivo General Militar de Segovia (for personal files of military officers); Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara (for personal files of ordinary soldiers); Archivo Histórico del Ejército del Aire; Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica.

2. The Repression following the Civil War

Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica; Archivo General e Histórico de la Defensa; Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara; Archivos Militares Intermedios of Ferrol, Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia, Ceuta, Melilla, Baleares y Canarias; Archivo General e Histórico del Aire; Archivo General de la Administración; Archivo General del Ministerio del Interior.

3. Social and Political Implications and Consequences of the Civil War

Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica; Archivo General de la Administración; Archivo General del Ministerio del Interior.

4. The Civil War in my own locality

Archivo General Militar de Ávila; Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica; Archivos Histórico Provinciales; Archivos Municipales.

5. Personal histories of the Civil War

The sections holding the private and family archives and the collections in the Archivos Histórico Nacionales of the Ministerio de Cultura (CDMH, AHN, AGA) and in the Archives of the Sistema Archivístico de la Defensa (AGMAV, AGHD).

So why is there no need for a single “General Archive of the Spanish Civil War”?

Because it would serve no useful purpose to attempt to concentrate all of the collections of documents which, as we have seen, are currently held in Spain on the subject in one single location.  It would be convenient, perhaps, and we think that an amendment should be proposed to the Law of Historical Memory (Ley de Memoria Histórica) which would go some way to achieving this objective by establishing a single unified point of internet access to all of the archive collections mentioned above.  This would be a true internet portal to source documents on the Civil War and the Franco Regime, which would also include links to open source data initiatives on the subject such as  IHR World, Todos los Nombres or Brunete en la Memoria, and to library collections and to collections of historical newspapers. 

Before completing this article we would like to add a brief mention of the main private archives, including those belonging to foundations, universities, political parties as well as personal archives. These also contain material relevant to the Civil War and to the Franco Dictatorship and the majority of these are accessible to the public.  We have serious doubts whether the action of some of these institutions in holding on to some of this material complies with current legislation, but this is not the time or place to go into this thorny subject….  

[Translation by Charlie Nurse]

Photo: Frente de Madrid. Servicio sanitario en la capital y en el Frente. El General Miaja con los jefes de Sanidad Militar visitando el importante donativo sanitario al ejército republicano por Central Sanitaria Internacional. Reportajes Gráficos Luis Vidal. Valencia. Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licencia CC-BY-NC-SA

In Spain there is no such thing as a single “General Archive of the Civil War (or a need for one)

Henar Alonso @henararch – Archivist (Técnica Facultativa Superior de Archivos). Ministry of Defence.

Publications by researchers on specific aspects of the Civil War and the Franco Regime appear with ever greater frequency, some of which, including those from people with a media profile, are multiplied by the social networks.  The majority of these,  moreover, of necessity refer to original documentary sources, and consequently cite the archives where these documents are to be found and where they have been consulted – or, at least, they should do this. 

And this is the moment when the archivists, sometimes by means of social media, throw our hands in the air in exasperation…. We understand perfectly that this kind of research work is not easy and that it requires time and effort from people who,  in most cases, do not receive any kind of payment or reward for their efforts, and that sometimes they manage to lose the correct relationship between the documents and their context.  The problem is that, with regard to documents and archives, the context is much more important than it may appear. 

As stated in the title, in Spain there is no such thing as a single “General Archive of the Civil War” (“Archivo General de la Guerra Civil”).  Instead there are many collections of documentary sources on the subject which are divided between lots of different archives,  some of them of a national character, but others regional, provincial, local, public, private…. People usually consider the Salamanca Document Centre of Historical Memory (Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica de Salamanca) as the  “Archive of the Civil War”, but, in reality, this holds only the documentary sources which were, for many years, a section of the Archivo Histórico Nacional. As a section of the latter archive, they were known initially as the “Sección Guerra Civil” and later as the “Archivo General de la Guerra Civil”.  This, understandably, is the source of the confusion which we have mentioned.

The Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica de Salamanca (CDMH) preserves the archive material from the Document Service of the Presidency of the Government (Servicios Documentales de la Presidencia del Gobierno) and from the Francoist-era  Special Tribunal for the Repression of Freemasonry and Communism (Tribunal Especial para la Represión de la Masonería y el Comunismo), along with others which were added after 1979, including documents transferred from other archives as a result of the promulgation of the Law of Historical Memory (Ley de Memoria Histórica) of 2007. Essentially, then, this archive contains the documentation produced by three of the Special Judicial Jurisdictions which were established for the purposes of repression during the Dictatorship, namely: 

The Causa General is the name given to the “general prosecution” established in 1940 to investigate the crimes committed in Spain between 1931 and 1939, during what was referred to as “the red domination” in Francoist Spain. The 1,953 sets of files of the Causa General, preserved in 4,000 boxes. They amount to more than a million pages that have been digitised and are accessible from this link by clicking on the arrow icon.

In addition to these three large collections which derive from the major institutions which were responsible for the seizure and copying of the documents which the rebel forces carried out during the Civil War, the CDMH also contains a number of  collections of documents from public institutions, from both Republican and  Nationalist zones. There are also numerous private or personal or family or institutional archives, as well as collections of oral sources, which have been added from time to time, along with material from numerous donations.  All of this may be consulted online via the Introductory Index (Cuadro de Clasificación) which, in addition, is linked to a description and a digitised version (if this exists)  on the Portal de Archivos Españoles except in the case of the Causa General, which still has to be consulted on this website as part of the Archivo Histórico Nacional, even though physically the documents are now housed in the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica. 

It is also worthwhile consulting the index of online databases (micrositios web de las bases de datos) of the CDMH, where the following can be found: information on the victims of the Civil War and those who suffered retaliation during the Franco Regime; Republican soldiers and members of the Republican forces of public order;  members of the Republican Army who were killed or were reported as disappeared in action; or who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps. To conclude, therefore, we could say that the CDMH, rather than being an archive “of the Civil War” is an archive of the postwar repression

If there is really anything which may be considered as a most deserving of the title “Archive of the Spanish Civil War” it is the General Military Archive of Ávila [Archivo General Militar de Ávila (AGMAV)], which is one of the four historical archives of the Spanish army. This is where documentation dealing with the military aspects of the armed conflict are to be found, whether relating to the forces of the Republican government or to those of the military rebels.  The archive preserves information on the following: the different military units; the development of the military operations; the services of military intelligence; maps, plans and photographs of the conflict; personal files of men who enlisted in the rebel forces through the recruitment offices of the militias.  The Archive’s collections consist partly of material gathered at the end of the war by members of the Military History Service of the Ministry of Defence [Servicio Histórico Militar del Ministerio de Defensa] as a result of an order issued by General Franco in July 1939 requiring all military units to collect all documentation of a military nature, both of their own forces and that seized from the Republican Army, in order to establish what he termed the “Archive of the War of Liberation”  (“Archivo de la Guerra de Liberación”). 

Along with this initial collection of documents, the Ávila archive also holds the following: the personal files of volunteers who enlisted in the militias formed by the Nationalists in the early months of the war; the personal files of the “Blue Division” (whose formal title was the “División Española de Voluntarios”) which was formed in 1941 to assist the armies of Nazi Germany in the invasion of the USSR; documentation from the now-extinct Ministry of the Army (Ministerio del Ejército), from the former Captaincy-Generals of the Military Regions of Spain (Capitanías Generales de Regiones Militares) and of the Gobiernos Militares (which operated at the provincial level) ;  documentation from other military establishments, such as Hospitals, Military Academies and Armaments Factories. A final part of its collections consist of private and family archives and collections.  The introductory index (cuadro de clasificación) may be consulted online, as well as the index of its historical and organisational structure.

Although these are the two main archives which should be consulted in any research on the Civil War and the repression during the Franco Dictatorship, they are not the only archives which contain important documentary sources which are of interest for research. We will give an account of the others in a later article.  


[Translation by Charlie Nurse]

Photos: Salamanca (Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica current building), November 1937. Exhibition of the National Document. 1er Año Triunfal. FOTO DESLESPRO. Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licencia CC-BY-NC-SA

“Expedición a Inglaterra” : The Basque Children in Britain

The Spanish Civil War disrupted the lives of a generation of children. Many were forced into exile, whether temporary or permanent. Nearly 4,000 children from the Basque provinces became refugees in Britain. To mark the anniversary of their departure, on Friday 21 May 1937, we are publishing a blog-post on their experiences.

When the Habana, a steamer chartered by the Basque government, sailed from the port of Santurce, 14 km north of Bilbao, she carried 3,826 child refugees who were escaping the assault by Franco’s forces on the city to an uncertain future. They were accompanied by 120 señoritas (female helpers), 80 teachers, 16 priests and 2 doctors.  The vessel, built to carry only 800 passengers, had a difficult voyage, hitting storms in the Bay of Biscay and arriving in Southampton on the morning of Sunday 23 May.  After disembarkation the children were taken, by a fleet of municipal buses, to a campsite at North Stoneham, outside Southampton, which had been hastily prepared for them.  [Watch this 1937 British newsreel report of the children’s arrival].

As the failed military coup of July 1936 developed into Civil War, the British Conservative-dominated government adopted a policy of “non-intervention”.  However,  within days local groups were launched across Britain to support the Republican government in its struggle against the military rebels. In the autumn representatives of these groups formed the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief

By the spring of 1937 support for the Republic focussed on the plight of the Basque country which was blockaded by Franco’s navy and threatened by the advance of the insurgent army. The destruction of Guernica on 26 April by the German Condor Legion was widely reported in the British press, most notably by George Steer, The Times correspondent who visited the destroyed town hours after the bombardment [Read Steer’s original article].

Even before this there were fears for the civilian population of Bilbao: the city  was being bombed daily and was home to an estimated 100,000 refugees. From early April, plans were made to evacuate some of the women and children, with offers to accept refugees coming from several countries including France and the Soviet Union. In Britain leading members of the National Joint Committee formed a separate Basque Children’s Committee (BCC), chaired by the Duchess of Atholl, a Conservative MP, to organise the evacuation of some children. Leah Manning, a former Labour MP, was sent to Bilbao to organise this and was followed in early May by two doctors and two Spanish-speaking nurses. Families were invited to apply for their children to be included.  In the crisis of May 1937 this was an agonising decision with important consequences: in some cases the children who left would not see their parents again for years, if ever.

The British government reluctantly agreed to the arrival of 2,000 children aged six to twelve, on condition that no public money should be spent on them and on the understanding that their stay would be limited to a few months.  Soon far more than 2,000 had been registered in Bilbao and the Duchess of Atholl persuaded the government to increase the number accepted to 4,000. Since she also highlighted the threat to teenage girls from Franco’s soldiers, the government agreed to accept children up to the age of sixteen, with girls making up a higher proportion of older ones. A desperate search for a site to house the children led to the offer of three fields covering 12 hectares at North Stoneham and volunteers worked hastily to erect tents and install necessary facilities including gas and water supplies. The War Office provided the tents and field kitchens and charged for their rental.

Accounts of life at North Stoneham stress the early difficulties which the children encountered – the strange food, the language, the life in tents and the heavy rain within days of their arrival which flooded the campsite. They also indicate the traumas caused by the children’s experiences of war (many, for example, ran to hide when a small plane flew over the camp to photograph it). The fall of Bilbao to the insurgent forces on 19 June led to emotional scenes as the children feared for their families and several hundred broke out of the camp.

North Stoneham was a temporary camp. Soon arrangements were made for groups of children to be dispersed across the country. 1,200 children were housed in communities run by the Catholic Church. The rest were moved to about 70 homes (known as “colonies”)  established by local community groups, the children being invited to put their names down for places of which they often knew nothing. Inevitably the colonies varied enormously as they depended on the resources of the host communities. Some colonies were clearly inadequate and were closed by the BCC, with the children being transferred.

The presence of the children was not welcomed by everyone. Supporters of Franco argued that allowing refugee children into Britain was a form of support for the Republic.  A campaign group, the Friends of Nationalist Spain, which included several Conservative MPs, was set up to press for their repatriation. Right-wing newspapers claimed that the children were communists, violent and unruly: a Daily Mail editorial described them as “potentially murderous little wretches”. In the summer of 1937 boys from two of the colonies were involved in disturbances with local residents, which provided further ammunition. After the fall of Bilbao the Catholic Church, which had supported the evacuation, joined the campaign for the children to be returned quickly.

However, most of the colonies managed to establish good relations with local communities. Boys’ football teams from the colonies played matches against local teams and some colonies organised concerts featuring Basque songs and dances to raise funds. The experiences of the children were very varied. Some of the colonies were better supported by local communities than others. Two of the best were those in Cambridge and in the south Wales town of Caerleon.

The 29 children in Cambridge were orphans from the families of Socialist militiamen. Initially they lived in a large vicarage outside the city, before moving to a big house near the railway station (a blue plaque now marks the house). They received classes from Cambridge University staff and spent a month in the summer of 1937 on the Norfolk coast as guests of the parents of John Cornford, who had been killed fighting in the International Brigades. Their music teacher, Rosita Bal, had studied under Manuel de Falla, and they performed songs and dances at concerts in London and elsewhere.

The colony in Caerleon benefited from the close links between Vizcaya and south Wales which developed in the nineteenth century as both areas industrialised (Vizcayan iron ore was exported to south Wales and the ships returned with Welsh coal for use in Basque steel mills). The Caerleon colony was supported financially by the South Wales Miners’ Federation as well as by local Methodists and Baptists and by the small Spanish community in Cardiff. The children were taught in both Spanish and English, established their own journal (Cambria House Journal) and gave concerts in towns across south Wales. In the summer of 1938 the children were invited to spend a week’s holiday with local miners’ families. Their football team developed a reputation as “the Basque Boys” and “the Invincibles”. The building which housed the colony also has a blue plaque. 

The children’s return to Spain was often a complicated process. In some cases one or both parents were dead or in refugee camps in Catalonia or in France. Letters from parents asking the children to return were in some cases clearly written under pressure from the Francoist authorities. Gradually, however, most children were reunited with their families, though this became more difficult after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.  Eventually about 400 children remained in Britain, either because they had no families to return to or because, on reaching the age of 16, they chose to stay. By 1945 only one of the colonies remained – at Carshalton in Surrey – and it closed soon afterwards. Although the Basque Children’s Committee was finally wound up in 1951, in 2002 a Basque Children’s Association was set up by descendents of those who remained.    

Further details on the Basque children in the United Kingdom may be obtained from BCA ‘37: The Association for the UK Basque Children.

Photo: Niños vascos en Stoneham, cerca de Southampton (Inglaterra). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licencia CC-BY-NC-SA

The Coalición ProAcceso asks to guarantee the right of access to information

Innovation and Human Rights is a member of the Coalición Pro Acceso, Along with around twenty other organisations, we have petitioned the Spanish government to guarantee the right of access to information, following the suspension of administrative procedures under the State of Alarm declared on 14 March in response to the coronavirus crisis.   

The Coalición ProAcceso, which  joined in March 2017,  is an initiative launched by  Access-Info, which defends and promotes the right of access to information in Europe. Its membership includes associations of Archivists, Journalists, Lawyers and other groups of citizens. Defending the right to access to information has always, since its establishment, been a key aspect of the work of our organisation.  At the end of this article you will find a list of all of the organisations involved; in some cases you may obtain further information on them by clicking on the links provided.  

Our requests are as follows: changes in legislation, the participation of archivists in the management of access to information, the establishment of a network centralising official information about Covid-19,  the publication of open data and, finally, guarantees for the protection of privacy in the process of digital data-tracking.

Access to information is fundamental

In a letter sent to Carolina Darias, the Minister of Regional Policy and Public Administration , the member-organisations of the Coalición Pro Acceso denounce the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on transparency and the right of access to information, which is a fundamental right which must be protected especially at times of crisis.  If we want citizens to trust institutions, it is essential that they know what those institutions are doing and that they are confident that they may hold the government accountable for its actions.  

The seriousness of the situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic has led the Government to take exceptional measures such as the suspension of plazos administrativos (the period within which official institutions are required to take action), a measure which has also occurred in many other countries, both in Europe and in the Americas. However, there are also examples of good practice, both within Spain and elsewhere, which demonstrate that, in spite of the circumstances, it is possible to fulfill the rights of the citizen in this regard: 

  • In Argentina, the measure has been altered so as to maintain the time limit requirements for replies to requests to access to information; 
  • In the European Union both the Council and the Commission have maintained the requirement to reply to requests, although they have given notice that in some cases there may be longer delays;  

The Coalición Pro Acceso calls upon the Spanish government to adopt the following measures:

  • Amend Real Decreto 463/2020, so as to include the right of access to information among the exceptions to the suspension of administrative requirements;
  • Require the information sections of the state administration to ensure that, as long as the State of Alarm continues, they prioritise all requests for information relating to Covid-19,  basing this on section four of the Disposición Adicional Tercera of the Real Decreto, which provides for the continuation of normal administrative procedures in matters related to the pandemic; 
  • Continue, as far as possible, to deal with those enquiries which are unrelated to the pandemic, whether received before or during the State of Alarm, thus avoiding delay in their resolution.
  • Fully document in a proper fashion all decisions taken and all action taken, in order to ensure the correct management of all information.
  • In the event that extra personnel are required to deal with requests for access to information, draw on the assistance of the archivists of the public sector as provided for in the eighteenth Disposición Adicional of the Real Decreto – Ley 11/2020, dated 31 March, under which urgent additional measures may be adopted in social and economic matters in order to confront Covid-19. 

Moreover, in order to ensure the transparency of the actions of public institutions it is necessary to carry out the following: 

  • Create either a specific web page or a specific section on the Transparency Portal of the Government dedicated exclusively to Covid-19, on which should be published in a proactive and centralised manner, all of the information related to the management of the pandemic (health, legal, labour, economic, scientific, budgetary, environmental….)  at all levels – national, autonomous community and local –  providing data in the most disaggregated way possible (by neighbourhood).  Priority should be given to providing the information required in the form most frequently requested. All of the data should be published in formats which are open and reusable, along with the corresponding metadata, and should also be included in a special section dedicated to Covid-19 on ; 
  • Publish in a proactive manner and with immediate effect:
    • details of the composition of the scientific committees, along with the reports which formed the basis of decisions taken by the Government; 
    • all of the information relating to emergency public contracts, including the names of the intermediaries, the beneficiaries, the contracts themselves, settlement of accounts, implementation, etc. 
    • Maintain digital support for the provision of all information related to Covid-19 which facilitate the traceability of the action taken and, thus, guarantee an adequate accounting procedure.
  • Guarantee protection of privacy, ensuring that the digital tracking and vigilance employed to protect the health of the citizens in this emergency are only a temporary measure and their use is constantly supervised by specialists and by members of civil society, thus ensuring complete transparency in the use of the data collected.

List of organisations supporting this petition:

The Mission of the School is to Transform the Country

Universal education is now considered one the most important duties of the state. This is, however, a recent development. Today, 14 April, to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, we publish a blog-post on the efforts made by the early governments of the Republic to to deal with the high levels of illiteracy by establishing a system of universal primary education

Spain had been one of the first European states to recognise the importance of universal education. The 1812 Constitution proclaimed that every village should have a primary school (article 366) and the Moyano Law of 1857 made school attendance obligatory until the age of nine.

These ambitious aims were, however, not translated into reality and the state relied heavily on the Church to provide education, both at primary level and at secondary, where some of its schools were among the most prestigious in the country.  In 1931 the Ministry of Education estimated that there were 32,680 schools and 27,151 more were needed [see Educación y Cultura en la Segunda República]. Based on an assumption that the average rural primary school would have one class of 50 pupils, there was a deficit of one million primary school places.

The consequences of this shortfall in school provision were to be found in the high rates of adult illiteracy, which amounted to over 30 per cent in the early 20th century and which, in some provinces, were over 60% [see detail]. As in any society with such high levels of illiteracy,  the abilities of many of those who qualified as literate were probably also very low.  Not surprisingly these estimates obscured major variations – between different social classes, between urban and rural areas (literacy tended to be higher in cities) and also between different parts of the country (northern Spain was generally more literate than the south). Illiteracy also largely affected women: the overall rate of adult illiteracy in the province of Zaragoza at the time was 30 per cent but 62 per cent of those who were illiterate were women, according to the Museo Pedagógico de Aragón

For the political leaders of the Second Republic universal literacy was fundamental. The Republican project did not simply represent the replacement of the monarchical form of government, but rather the opportunity to modernise Spain. Part of that modernisation was the creation of a literate and informed citizenry who would be capable of exercising the responsibilities necessary to support a system of representative government. This was recognised, for example, by Manuel Azaña, who became Prime Minister in October 1933, when he stated that “the state school should be the shield of the Republic” [“la escuela pública debía ser el escudo de la República”]. The role of education was also stressed by Rodolfo Llopis, Director-General of Primary Education, in a speech in Zaragoza in December 1932:

the mission of the school is to transform the country….so that those people who are now treated as subjects may become the responsible citizens of a Republic [La misión de la escuela es transformar el país en estos momentos (…) que los que estaban condenados a ser súbditos, puedan ser ciudadanos conscientes de una República] [source]

Llopis’s words were reflected in several articles in the 1931 Constitution, which stated that “the provision of culture is an essential responsibility of the State, and it will be provided by means of educational institutions linked to a unified system of schooling”. [El servicio de la cultura es atribución esencial del Estado, y lo prestará mediante instituciones educativas enlazadas por el sistema de la escuela unificada].  Under Article 48 primary education was to be “free and obligatory” [gratuita y obligatoria] and teaching was to be “carried out by lay professionals” [laica] and “inspired by ideals of human solidarity” [se inspirará en ideales de solidaridad humana].

Given the shortage of primary schools, the new government  committed itself almost immediately to a plan to build 5,000 new primary schools a year for the next five years. Land was to be provided by municipalities while the government would contribute towards construction costs and pay the salaries of teachers.

After the first ten months the Minister of Education was able to announce the construction of over 7,000 new schools.  Thereafter the pace of building dropped, partly because of financial restraints and partly because of the conflict with the Church and its political consequences. As a result the figure for 1932 was 2,580, for 1933 3,990 and for 1934-35 (the two years of government by the centre-right) 3,421. This represented a total of 9,991 in four years. These figures should be compared with the  total of 11,128 new schools opened under the monarchy in the three decades after 1900.

The government ministers most closely associated with this building programme – and with further reforms to strengthen and modernise the school system –  were Marcelino Domingo, Minister of Education between April and October 1931 and Fernando de los Ríos who succeeded him from October 1931 until the fall of the Azaña government in October 1933.

Of course, new schools required more teachers and the Ministry launched a programme to recruit some of the many holders of the title of licenciado (a teaching qualification) who had no teaching experience by providing 7,000 places on refresher courses. There were also measures to improve the status and pay of primary teachers: the notoriously low pay of teachers was reflected in the common expression “to be as poor as a school-teacher” [“pasar más hambre que un maestro de escuela”]. Teachers, who under the Constitution were given the status of public servants or  “funcionarios publicos”,  saw their salaries increase by about 15% between 1931 and 1933.

Teachers were, in fact, seen as key figures in the consolidation of the Republic: as the Revista de Pedagogía stressed in May 1931: “As Spanish teachers, we more than anyone, are obliged to be the most enthusiastic defenders of the Republic. We have the duty of providing the schools with the essential ideas which support it: liberty, personal independence, solidarity, civility”. [“Los educadores españoles estamos, como nadie, obligados a ser los defensores más entusiastas de la República. Tenemos el deber de llevar a las escuelas las ideas esenciales en que se apoya: libertad, autonomía, solidaridad, civilidad.” [source]. As Carlos París has noted:

“this gave rise to a generation of teachers identified with the Republic. The Franco regime identified this and banned from teaching those who had taught in the Republican zone during the Civil War” [“Surge así toda una generación de maestros identificados con la República. El régimen franquista tomó tan buena nota de ello, que prohibió la enseñanza a todas las personas que la habían ejercido en la zona republicana durante la Guerra Civil.”

Measures were also taken to improve and extend secondary education, including the building of new schools. Co-educational secondary schools were to replace single-sex provision, a move which provoked opposition from parents especially in some rural areas and smaller cities. Co-education would later be banned by the Franco Dictatorship. 

The Republic’s educational reforms helped to fuel a serious dispute with the Church and to earn it the hostility of many devout Catholics. Article 26 of the Constitution prohibited religious orders from teaching. In 1931 the Ministry of Education asked municipalities for the number attending religious primary schools. The total came to 350,000 – to replace which, again on the basis of fifty pupils per school, would require the state to build an additional 7,000 schools. The Church also owned about 300 secondary schools with some 20,000 pupils. Unlike primary schools, the government could not immediately replace these because of the lack of qualified staff to substitute for the members of religious orders who taught in them. However, before this issue could be resolved, the Azaña government fell from office and was replaced by a centre-right administration led by Alejandro Lerroux which ignored this constitutional provision.  

PHOTO: José Sánchez Rosa’s school. He was an Andalusian rationalist teacher, follower of Francisco Ferrer Guardia’s teaching model. Image taken in Seville in 1936, shortly before the so-called ‘Alzamiento
Nacional’ (National Rising), the name given by its supporters to the
attempted military coup.. Author: Franciscojosecuevasnoa [CC BY-SA]