Luis Companys was born in El Torros, Spain, on 21st June, 1883. He studied law in Barcelona and while at university formed the Republican Student Association and worked closely with the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). In 1920 he was arrested for his political activities and was imprisoned in the Castle of La Mola in Minorca.
After being released in 1921 he became involved in the Catalonian independence movement. He joined the Esquerra Party and edited the weekly journal La Terra.
Companys was elected to Barcelona council. On the 14th April 1931, he joined other members of the party to occupy the city hall where they proclaimed the establishment of a republic. In June he was appointed speaker of the Catalan parliament.
On 1st January 1934, Companys was elected president of an autonomous Catalonia. The following year he declared Catalonia fully independent within the Spanish Republic. This separatist revolt failed and Companys and the entire Catalan government were arrested. Companys was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in jail.
Companys was released from prison after the Popular Front victory in February, 1936. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Companys organized the Worker's Party (POUM) and the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) to defeat the military uprising in Barcelona.
During the war Companys attempted to maintain the unity of the coalition of parties in Barcelona. However, after the Soviet cousul, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, threatened the suspension of Russian aid, he agreed to sack Andrés Nin as minister of justice in December 1936.
Companys attempted to protect members of the Worker's Party (POUM) and the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) from the Communist dominated Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC). This was in vain and although he remained president he was no more than a figurehead
After the victory of General Francisco Franco and the Nationalist Army Companys fled to France but after the German Army occupied the country in 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent back to Spain. General Francisco Franco ordered that he should be tried for treason. Found guilty on 14th October, 1940 he was executed the following day.
(1) Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)
For me that first day in Spain was completed by a summons to the Generalitat - the medieval palace of the Government of Catalunya. I wondered if my Port Bou bluff had been called, but it was an enchanting, ethereal experience that in my mind's eye still seems magical. A young man called for me at our billets in the Hotel Lloret. He was dressed in a Catalan shirt with a crisscross lacing instead of buttons. He asked me to accompany him at once - Luis Companys the President of Catalunya wished to see me. As we drove to the Generalitat, he said in beautiful English how moved the President had been at the news of our arrival. He explained that it would not be possible for the interview to be other than extremely short but the President insisted on seeing the leader of the British Group personally.
My guide took me up the steps into the 17th Century garden court-yard of the Generalitat. We passed successive groups of guards. Some smartly gave the clenched-fist salute (PSUC Militia); two sailors presented arms and at the top of the steps someone dressed like an El Greco chamberlain led us through a rose garden with strolling peacocks to a corner of a cloister where, in a screened space, we were offered iced wine, mineral water and ratafia biscuits. In the longish wait, maybe forty-five minutes, we had time to talk. It became clear that my companion knew England well; his English was so good that he may in part have been educated there. Suddenly the El Greco Chamberlain came and led us in to the President's Office. Lluis Companys was immensely dignified while radiating an urbane and smiling welcome. He asked me to be sure that the Unit, and those who had sent it, should be told of the profound importance of their act of faith in the Catalan democratic cause ; he wanted me to know that he had given instructions that we should be given every facility, all I had to do was to ask Don Pepe. He hoped I had liked the claret which, in his view, was the only wine worth drinking between meals. On this he excused himself for his negligence as host; he would have liked to have entertained the whole British mission to dinner, but he counted on our understanding of the burdens of these difficult times so, alas, he must return to his Military Council. The phrases, admittedly, were those of a political intellectual of the old school, but clichés can also come from the heart and reflect a truth. Don Pepe had translated that musical but emphatic Catalan with professional grace but, as we strolled back through the enchanted peacock garden, he made one correction. We were speaking English, but I had called him, imitating the President, Don Pepe. He said "It is better to call me “Compañero” rather than “Don”. Just ring the switchboard and ask for me at any time; I really mean what I am saying". When I tried to learn more about him he said, "Names no longer count in Spain, more particularly today, when so many of us are separated by the war. I have family on the other side. Everyone here calls me Pepe". I wonder if 'Pepe' survived the defeat which, when we first met, was so unthinkable. In this civil war I could tell him my own name but he, for the sake of his kin on the other side, could not give me his. This original discretion started a half century of silence on my side. I have long since become reconciled to the sad probability that he too must have fallen but, should he still be with us, he will remember me as I remember him. I can but hope that by some happy miracle he may read these words and that once again we may drink clarete together in the Generalitat.
(2) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (17th September, 1936)
To add to today's telephone conversation, I report: Companys was in a very nervous state. I spoke with him for more than two hours, while all he did the whole time was complain about Madrid. His arguments: the new government has not changed anything; slights Catalonia as if it were a province and this is an autonomous republic; sends instructions like to the other governors - refuses to turn over religious schools to the generalitat; demands soldiers and does not give out any of the weapons bought abroad, not one airplane and so on.
As yet, neither Caballero nor Prieto has managed to find time to receive him. And so on. He explained that if they did not receive cotton or hard currency for cotton within three weeks there would be a hundred thousand out of work. He very much wanted to trade with the Soviet Union. He believed that any sign of attention being paid to Catalonia by the Soviet Union was important. As for the internal situation, he spoke rather optimistically; the influence of the FAl was decreasing, the role of the government growing.
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."
(3) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (18th September, 1936)
Today I again had a long conversation with Companys. He proposed to form a local government in this way: half Esquerra, half CNT and UGT. He said that he would reserve for himself finance and the police. After my words on the fact that the anarchists' lack of personal responsibility would interfere with manufacturing, he declared that he "agreed" to put a Marxist at the head of industry. He called Oliver a fanatic. He reproached the PSUC for not answering the terror of the anarchists with the same. On the conduct of the Catalan militia in Madrid, he said that that was the FAI-ists and that the national Guardia and the Esquerrists would fight anyone. He said that Madrid itself wanted the CNT militia, while not hiding the fact that the latter left to "establish order in Madrid." He advised sending them back from Madrid.
The whole time he cursed the FAI. He knew that I was going from him to the CNT and was very interested in how the FAI-ists would converse with me. He requested that I communicate the results of the conversation with him. He complained that the FAI-ists were against Russia were carrying out anti-Soviet propaganda, or more accurately, carried out but that he was our friend, and so on. A steamship, even if it held only sugar would soften his heart.