The Spanish civil war was one of the most important conflicts of the last century. On the 17th July 1936 the Army, headed by General Franco, revolted and attempted to stage a coup d’etat in response to the recent elections and the formation of the second republic, headed by a centre left Republican party. The last thing many people wanted was a totalitarian regime, so they organised against Franco. The fascists had the support of the church and the bourgeoisie, whereas the workers and antifascists were supported by left wing parties and unions. Contrary to bourgeois historians, the majority of workers in Spain didn’t rally to defend the 2nd republic as their “legally elected government” they fought to defend democracy itself, true democracy, of which fascism is the antithesis. They waged a war of revolution on the fascists, collectivising farms, and organising the workers’ running of factories as they went.
It’s hard to set the scene in a few paragraphs. The left were organised in a popular front of parties, the Anarchist CNT-FAI, the Socialists, the Marxist POUM and the Stalinist PCE/PSUC and left bourgeois democratic parties. Although the Stalinists were the smallest party and had the least support, they had the might of Stalin’s Communist Party behind them. As Russia was the only country willing to supply the republic arms, they used this leverage to increase their party’s control of the front. They purposefully sabotaged the campaigns of the POUM and CNT by withholding arms.
Stalin did this because the USSR and the Communist Party (whose will in Spain was expressed through the Spanish Communist Party PCE) had long since deviated from the communism they were supposed to represent. He wanted Franco defeated, but not with the workers in control. This was because he was more interested in signing treaties with France and Britain and a rogue workers state on their borders was the last thing they wanted.
This interview is with Daniella, who was 18 at the time of the siege of Madrid. She, like many people, believed the communist party were the party that represented the people (N.B. Stalin’s atrocities in Russia didn’t become well known till the 50’s).
Madrid was a special case, it became besieged in October 1936, and even though Stalin didn’t want the revolting workers to succeed, the loss of Madrid would have been a blow. Franco wanted to take Madrid quickly, as the country’s capital would give him credibility in the eyes of Hitler and Mussolini.
Madrid didn’t fall quickly; it was reinforced before encirclement was complete, and even though the counter revolution was in full swing in the rest of “Republican Spain” the Stalinists halted it in Madrid, and even allowed their hated POUM to continue fighting. In Madrid the workers were armed and organised. The city was held by over 100,000 militia men and soldiers.
But as time passed the counter-revolution crushed the spirit of the working class, and the Stalinists persecuted all dissenters ruthlessly. Madrid finally fell in March 1939. Dolores “La Pasionaria” Ibárruri (who first said “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees,”) is mentioned by Daniella later within the interview, she was a leader of the communist party in Spain and a talented public speaker earning her the nickname La Pasionaria or the passionate one. But she was a leading member of a party which murdered thousands of workers, and helped kill the Spanish revolution. Despite this La Pasionaria is still held in esteem by many who fought with her, Daniella included.
LH: OK Daniella, tell me about how you came to know Dolores La Pasionaria Ibarruri?
Daniella: First my sister Concha and I joined the Women’s Anti-Fascist Committee. The secretary was Encarnacion Fuyola. There was also a German woman. I don’t know her name, but she was a good woman. There were lots of other girls, but now I don’t remember their names.
We worked there. Each woman had her job. Our job was to make the macutos, kits of clothes for the boys on the front, the soldiers, and every week Dolores, La Pasionaria, would come for them in her car, a big car to carry the parcels.
She called me ojos bonitos (pretty eyes). She would say: “Ojos bonitos, where are you?”
And I would say: “Here I am.”
And one day she said: “Would you like to come with me?” And I said: “Yes, wait Dolores, I am coming with you,” and I got in her car with her and the chauffeur and we left.
We were going to the front, to take the parcels, to distribute them, but we passed by the Communist Central Committee offices and there was Vicente, my brother [who was a soldier], and he saw me. He said: “Where are you going, dirty face?”
I told him: “I am going to the front, to take the parcels to the boys.”
“You’re not going anywhere. You get down from there at once! If dad could see you…”
“I am not getting down. I am waiting!” because she went to get something which she had forgotten. I said: “If she comes down and I am not here…”
He said: “Yes, when she comes down you won’t be here. Get down and once and go to your committee.” And I got down and I went to my committee.
A week later Dolores, La Pasionaria, came back and she says: “Ojos bonitos where are you?”
And I say: “Here I am.”
“Aah. Were you scared?” She asked.
“No. I wasn’t scared. Do you know what happened? My brother was there and he threw me out of the car, but next time, when you don’t have to stop off at the Committee offices, I will go with you.” But the time passed and I didn’t go.
We worked hard, very hard. We worked in a big room. We put in all the clothes they [the soldiers] needed, socks, underwear and everything. In summer I washed summer clothes, in winter, winter clothes.
LH: And how old were you?
D: I was eighteen, nearly nineteen. Then they began to say that Franco’s troops were coming [the city had fallen]. So we burnt the personnel files, we were all listed there, and because of that I have no record. I searched for Fuyola, the secretary, for a long time, and I didn’t find her. Then my brother Vicente told me she had died.
When La Pasionaria came back from Russia [after Franco died in 1975] I wanted to go and see her. I was older then, of course, and she, much older. I wanted to go, and she wouldn’t have recognised me, but I would have looked at her and said: “Do you know me, I am the one with the ojos bonitos?” Then she would have soon known me.
She was a very good woman. The way she treated people was very good, very good. In discussions she was strong, energetic, very strong [belief] in her… her communist thing. But in the way she treated people, a good person, very good.
LH: What was life in Madrid like during the civil war?
D: In Madrid, good until they got close, but then they were firing canons all day, dropping bombs and we walked around the streets as if nothing was happening. Nothing. We went to the cinema and we went everywhere. Of course, those they killed, they killed and those they didn’t, they didn’t. Well, life went on.
And I went to my brother’s house…
D: A lot. Vicente’s. My brother and his wife [Fidela'] house.
And we got on very well together and I visited them a lot. And when the war was about to end there was uproar in Madrid and in the parks, in the street: tanks. Soldiers on the parapets, behind sandbags with rifles, on all the street corners and one day we went out and the radio announced:
“Comrades, anyone who is not in their house at twelve will be taken as a deserter.”
I left my husband [Emiliano], I had got married towards the end of the war, at the entrance to the underground and I went back to tell Fidela: “Get the girls and bring them inside.”
LH: Vicky and Lina?
D: They were our girls. I had no children, only hers: “Get the girls and bring them inside. Listen to what they are saying on the radio.”
I went back to the underground and when we came out there were soldiers on parapets behind sandbags waiting with guns. Because they didn’t want the war to end. Then they said that the president, Negrín, had left Spain and that they had put in a president called Casado, to hand Madrid over to Franco.
The communists didn’t want to hand Madrid over to Franco and the socialists did, but they all dressed the same and they went through the streets saying: “Get out! Go back!” and you had to go back.
We went into a shop. Emiliano was in the doorway looking out from behind a glass pane, I pulled him back and suddenly a bullet came. BOOM!
Two of the fascists who were in Madrid were in the windows [above the street]. And the communists and the socialists were firing at each other in the street.
Anyway, we got to the door of our house and there was a tank firing. It stopped and my husband went up and said: “What is happening comrades? Hasn’t Casado formed a government?”
The soldier stuck a gun in his stomach and said: “You are for Casado too?”
Then I grabbed the soldier’s gun and said: “Wait, wait comrade. We don’t know. It’s what the TV says, that Negrín has gone.”
“It’s not true. Negrin is here.”
I said: “Well that is what we want, for Negrin to be here.” And he didn’t shoot Emiliano. It was like that everywhere, as I said. Bombs and soldiers shooting until Franco took Madrid.
LH: What was it like when Franco took Madrid?
D: I was living in a house owned by some very fat friends of the king. They had a card from the king, inviting them to a party. After Franco took Madrid, two ladies, the owner and two flight captains appeared at the door. I was in my room getting dressed and: “BANG, BANG. Open the door!”
I said: “Please, wait a moment. I’m getting dressed.”
“In my house I don’t have to wait,” he said.
I said: “Alright, if you don’t want to wait I’ll come out naked.” They waited and I came out. Emiliano had a paper which the porter had written describing the condition the room was in when we took it, that there was only a bed, an empty wardrobe and, I don’t know, some chairs or something. I gave it to him.
I said: “Here you are. Look how I came into this house. I have nothing of yours.”
At first they said we had to leave at once and then they came back and said that those who had places to go should leave at once and those who hadn’t could stay for one more day. We left and went to a cousin’s house until that was over.
I was going to Vicente and Fidela’s house and we had to stop in the Puerta del Sol because Franco was entering the city. And everyone had their hands like this [fascist salute] and we didn’t know whether to do this [communist solidarity gesture]. If we did that they would have shot us so we just did nothing.
Afterwards they took my brother, my husband, Emiliano and another brother, Francisco. They took them all away to concentration camps. It was pouring down. Your Fidela and I went to look for them. We rode on the Moors’ cars, in the lorries. Fidela was pregnant.
And from the lorries… BOOM! They fired at people. The next day Fidela couldn’t come because she was ill, she lost the child, and I went on my own. I went to another camp and I called our surname, Culsan, because there are no Culsans other than us. And I called: “Culsan, Culsan!”
One of the soldiers inside says: “Are you looking for Culsan?”
“They are here.”
I said: “Go and call them please.” I had a thermos of hot milky coffee and food and all that. I gave it to them and then I had to go and get back on the Moors’ lorries and go back to Madrid because the camp was outside, on the outskirts of Madrid .
My brother Francisco, had a good watch and had had to swap it for a tin of sardines, one of those small tins, just to be able to eat.
I went home on the underground and in the Puerta del Sol I saw that [left wing] soldiers were coming with blankets wrapped around saying: “They have set us all free. They have let us go.”
I said to myself, well then they must have let ours go. I went back to Fidela’s house. I said: “Fidela, they have let them go, they have let them go. They are coming.”
Fidela: “Oh, if they’re coming, do you know what Daniela, we are going to make rosquillas.”
Do you know what rosquillas are?
D: Round biscuits.
And anyway, they weren’t coming, they weren’t coming and I was saying: “You see. If we hadn’t made rosquillas they would have come.” [She laughs]
Fidela, was saying: “Nonsense. You are being silly. They’ll come. They’ll come.” And it was night by the time they came.
The next day my husband’s parents, who were fascists, sent us a bit of food and the day after one of his brothers came to take us back to his house. I didn’t want to go because to them I was bad, [I was a] red, very red. If I said a word they would say: “La cabra tira al monte.” (The goat shoots at the mountain.) They said that I killed my own, if I said anything. I couldn’t say anything. It was very bad.
But when I went there everyone said to Emiliano’s mother: “What a wife Emiliano has brought. How beautiful she is, how pretty!” I was young. I had no children. I had blonde hair, right down to here [gestures to show length] and with high heels, higher because I was short. But it was very bad because they put me down all the time.
Then the fascists put my father in prison. He was working as a nurse in the military hospital. They took everyone and put them in prison. The mayor and the secretary of the village where my father had been living were asked for a character reference and they gave a bad one and they put my father in prison. He was sentenced to death three times.
During the day he was working as a nurse to the sick, giving injections and everything. But at night he had to go down to the death row cells. And they would open the locks, RUM, RUM, RUM, to take people and kill them. And my dad was a bit deaf and probably asleep and would ask: “What happened?”
The other prisoners would say: “Don Juanito, you are a bit deaf and you can’t hear, but when they open the locks we start to tremble.”
One day they took three boys who we knew, friends of ours. [She starts to cry] They killed the three of them. A friend, an Uncle and a cousin. Three boys.
My Dad thought they would never let him go. Three years in prison and however many character references and other things we brought, they wouldn’t let him go.
He sent a letter to my mother, and their children, saying: “I can see that you can’t do anything for me, but be at peace because I am not a criminal or a bad person.”
And then, after all that time, the same people who denounced him, sent another paper saying it had been a mistake, that he wasn’t the person they thought.
Three years! My Father came out like this [indicates he was gaunt].
When they went home the house had been wrecked and everything had been stolen. Everything, everything, everything. The house had been full of things. They had knocked down the door and the dividing walls. They had knocked down the stairs that went to the upper floors. It was a disaster.
For more information on the Spanish Revolution a good starting point is Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, by Felix Morrow or Gerorge Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
Thanks to Vicky for her superior knowledge of all things Spanish Civil War and Nic for running around that dusty Catalan town with me looking for a Dictaphone.