Federica Montseny (1905-1994)

Biography

Federica Montseny was born in Madrid, Spain, on 12th February, 1905. Her parents were the co-editors of the anarchists journal, La Revista Blanca (1898-1905). In 1912 the family returned to Catalonia and farmed land just outside Barcelona. Later they established a company that specialized in publishing libertarian literature.

Montseny joined the anarchist labor union, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). As well as working in the family publishing business she contributed articles to anarchist journals such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad and Nueva Senda. In her writings Montseny called for women’s emancipation in Spain.

In 1921 Miguel Primo de Rivera banned the CNT. It now became an underground organization and in 1927 Montseny joined the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI).

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. At the same time Montseny established another anarchist militia, the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty).

In 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.

In November 1936 Francisco Largo Caballero appointed Montseny as Minister of Health. In doing so, she became the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion.

During the Spanish Civil War the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT), the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and the Worker’s Party (POUM) played an important role in running Barcelona. This brought them into conflict with other left-wing groups in the city including the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the Communist Party (PCE).

On the 3rd May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police, ordered the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard to take over the Telephone Exchange, which had been operated by the CNT since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Members of the CNT in the Telephone Exchange were armed and refused to give up the building. Members of the CNT, FAI and POUM became convinced that this was the start of an attack on them by the UGT, PSUC and the PCE and that night barricades were built all over the city.

Fighting broke out on the 4th May. Later that day the anarchist ministers, Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, arrived in Barcelona and attempted to negotiate a ceasefire. When this proved to be unsuccessful, Juan Negrin, Vicente Uribe and Jesus Hernández called on Francisco Largo Caballero to use government troops to takeover the city. Largo Caballero also came under pressure from Luis Companys, the leader of the PSUC, not to take this action, fearing that this would breach Catalan autonomy.

On 6th May death squads assassinated a number of prominent anarchists in their homes. The following day over 6,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia and gradually took control of Barcelona. It is estimated that about 400 people were killed during what became known as the May Riots.

These events in Barcelona severely damaged the Popular Front government. Communist members of the Cabinet were highly critical of the way Francisco Largo Caballero handled the May Riots. President Manuel Azaña agreed and on 17th May he asked Juan Negrin to form a new government. Montseny, along with other anarchist ministers, Juan Garcia Oliver, Juan López and Juan Peiró now resigned from the government.

Negrin’s government now 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.

Negrin also began appointing members of the Communist Party (PCE) to important military and civilian posts. This included Marcelino Fernandez, a communist, to head the Carabineros. Communists were also given control of propaganda, finance and foreign affairs. The socialist, Luis Araquistain, described Negrin’s government as the “most cynical and despotic in Spanish history.”

At the end of the Spanish Civil War Montseny fled to France. She now led the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) in exile until her arrest in 1942. She was imprisoned in Perigueux and Limoges during the Second World War and was not released until the liberation of France in 1944.

Montseny moved to Toulouse where she published the anarchist newspaper, L’Espoir. Unlike most other exiles, she decided not to return home after the death of General Francisco Franco and the re-introduction of democracy in Spain. Federica Montseny died in 1994.

Bibliography

La Victoria
“Heroínas” in Bordonada, Angeles Ena
María Silva: “La libertaria”
Qué es el anarquismo?
El éxodo: Pasión y muerte de los espanoles en el exilio
Seis anos de mi vida (1939-1945)

Reading

Federica Montseny: Spain and Russia

“In Spain the Anarchists will not be treated as they are in Russia.” When Fascism is destroyed, the Revolution, carried out by the people, will be real. In Cataluna, for instance, there is not the slightest chance left to re-establish private property, because all archives and property-titles have been burnt, and all proprietors who have not lost their lives have left their property in the hands of the workers’ organizations.

In Cataluna the Revolution is already a fact. The land has been collectivized. In the villages, Supply Committees are organizing the exchange of products from village to village, from district to district, from region to region. Thus the use of money has become almost superfluous. The activity of the Anarchists has been so fertile that no one would even dare to suggest a similar treatment meted out to our comrades in Soviet Russia. There, too, the Anarchists tried to realize their ideas, as for instance, in the Ukrainia, where libertarian communism had been attempted. But, lacking numeric strength, they were excluded from the responsible direction of the Revolution, though they fought on every front as well as in the rear. After the establishment of the Red dictatorship, the Army and Cheka, created to fight the enemy, were used against the Anarchists, who were pursued with fire and sword.

But we here in Cataluna, have done practical work, we have participated in everything, we are everywhere. Thus we have brought about a Revolution in Spain. We have machine-guns rifles and cannons.

. . . We are ready to fight, to construct, to realize the demands of the people. We want the unity of all anti-Fascists, but at the same time we demand respect for those who are fighting, and we are opposing political maneuvers. May the others give in like we do. Situations are different everywhere. If in Cataluna to-day a syndicate proclaims a slogan, it is already carried out. This form of economic construction is one of the fundamentals of our fight against Fascism. The people themselves, and only the people, determine the rhythm of our fight. Never will the Anarchists in Spain be made to suffer as they have been and are in Russia.

Compiled by Romano Krauth

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