Anarchist Brigades

The Antifascist Militias Committee was set up in Barcelona on 24th July 1936. The committee immediately sent Buenaventura Durruti and 3,000 Anarchists to Aragón in an attempt to take the Nationalist held Saragossa.

Over the first few weeks of the Spanish Civil War an estimated 100,000 men joined Anarcho-Syndicalists militias. Anarchists also established the Iron Column, many of whose 3,000 members were former prisoners. In Guadalajara, Cipriano Mera, leader of the CNT construction workers in Madrid, formed the Rosal Column and Federica Montseny established the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty).

At the beginning of November, 25,000 Nationalist troops under General Jose Varela had reached the western and southern suburbs of Madrid. Five days later he was joined by General Hugo Sperrle and the Condor Legion. This began the siege of Madrid that was to last for nearly three years.

On 14th November Buenaventura Durruti arrived in Madrid from Aragón with his Anarchist Brigade. Six days later Durruti was killed while fighting on the outskirts of the city. Durruti's supporters in the CNT claimed that he had been murdered by members of the Communist Party (PCE).

Members of the Durruti Column in Aragón (August, 1936)
Members of the Durruti Column in Aragón (August, 1936)

The Popular Front government attempted to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Republican Army. At first the Anarcho-Syndicalists resisted and attempted to retain hegemony over their units. This proved impossible when the government made the decision to only pay and supply militias that subjected themselves to unified command and structure.

CNT-FAL units continued to serve together and retained their independence in the Catalan Army of the East that fought at Belchite and Teruel. Anarchists were also prominent in the 149 Brigade, the 64th Division in the Army of the Levante and the Army of the North.

Primary Sources

(1) Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

The village bar is full of peasants. The appearance of three foreigners naturally is a big event. They immediately start telling us proudly about their feats. Most of them are anarchists. One man with a significant gesture of the fingers across the throat tells us that they have killed thirty-eight 'fascists' in their village; they evidently enjoyed it enormously. (The village has only about a thousand inhabitants.) They had not killed any women or children, only the priest, his most active adherents, the lawyer and his son, the squire, and a number of richer peasants! At first I thought the figure of thirty-eight was a boast, but next morning it was verified from the conversation of other peasants, who, some of them, were not at all

pleased with the massacre. From them I got details of what had happened. Not the villagers themselves had organized the execution, but the Durruti column when it first came through the village. They had arrested all those suspected of reactionary activities, took them to the jail by motor-lorry, and shot them. They told the lawyer's son to go home, but he had chosen to die with his father.

As a result of this massacre the rich people and the Catholics in the next village rebelled; the alcalde mediated, a militia column entered the village, and again shot twenty-four of its adversaries.

What had been done with the property of those executed? The houses, of course, had been appropriated by the committee, the stores of food and wine had been used for feeding the militia. I omitted to ask about money. But the big problem was the land and the rents which the landlords had previously received from their tenants. To my intense surprise, no decision had been taken about this matter, though it was more than two weeks since the executions. The only certain thing was that the land of the deceased continued to be worked as it had been previously: those parts which had been let were still worked by their former tenants, and those formerly managed as an estate and cultivated by agricultural labourers were still functioning in the same way; only instead of the squire it was now the committee which employed the necessary labour. As to the rest, there was only vague talk: the committee would eventually receive 50 per cent of the old rents, the other half being remitted, and half of the expropriated lands would be distributed among the poorer peasants, while the other half would be managed by the committee as collective property of the village.

Evidently in this village the agrarian revolution had not been the result of passionate struggle by the peasants themselves, but an almost automatic consequence of the executions, which were themselves but an incident in the civil war. Now most of the peasants were bewildered by the new situation. One of them, among many others, simply said: 'What do I know? They will give an order about it.' I ask: 'Who will give an order?' 'Oh, how do I know? There will be some government,' he replied. This threw a new light upon the vague replies I had got the day before in other villages when inquiring about land expropriation and rent abolition.

(2) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (17th September, 1936)

I spoke with Garcia Oliver. He was also in a frenzied state. Intransigent. At the same time that Lopez, the leader of the Madrid syndicalists, was declaring to me that they had not permitted and would not permit attacks on the Soviet Union in the CNT newspaper, Oliver declared that they had said that they were "criticizing" the Soviet Union because it was not an ally, since it had signed the non-interference pact, and so on. Durruti, who has been at the front, has learned a lot, whereas Oliver, in Barcelona, is still nine-tenths anarchist ravings. For instance, he is against a unified command on the Aragon front; a unified command is necessary only when a general offensive begins. Sandino, who was present during this part of the conversation, spoke out for a unified command. They touched on the question of mobilization and the transformation of the militia into an army. Durruti made much of the mobilization plans (I do not know why - there are volunteers but no guns). Oliver said that he agreed with Durruti, since "Communists and Socialists are hiding themselves in the rear and pushing the FAI-ists out of the cities and villages." At this point he was almost raving. I would not have been surprised if he had shot me.

I spoke with Trueba, the PSUC (Communist) political commissar. He complained about the FAI-ists. They are not giving our men ammunition. We have only thirty-six bullets left per man. The anarchists have reserves of a million and a half. Colonel Villalba's soldiers only have a hundred cartridges each. He cited many instances of the petty tyrannies of FAI. People from the CNT complained to me that Fronsosa, the leader of PSUC, gave a speech at a demonstration in San Boi in which he said that the Catalans should not be given even one gun, since the guns would just fall into the hands of the anarchists. In general, during the ten days that I was in Catalonia, relations between Madrid and the generalitat on the one hand, and that between the Communists and the anarchists on the other, became very much more strained. Companys is wavering; either he gravitates toward the anarchists, who have agreed to recognize the national and even nationalistic demands of the Esquerra, or he depends on the PSUC in the struggle against FAI. His circle is divided between supporters of the former and of the latter solutions. If the situation on the Talavera front worsens, we can expect him to come out on one or the other side. We must improve relations between the PSUC and the CNT and then try to get closer to Companys.

In Valencia our party is working well, and the influence of the UGT is growing. But the CNT has free rein there. The governor takes their side completely. This is what happened when I was there: sixty anarchists with two machine-guns turned up from the front, as their commander had been killed. In Valencia they burned the archives and then wanted to break into the prison to free the criminals. The censor (this is under Lopez, the leader of the CNT) prohibited our newspaper from reporting about any of this outrage, and in the CNT paper there was a note that the "free masses destroyed the law archives as part of the accursed past."