Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War
Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria — a magnificent communist
by Denis Doherty
July last year marked the 70th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, which started on July 18th 1936. At the centre of the struggle of the Spanish people, to defend Republican Spain stands the magnificent communist Dolores Ibarruri or La Pasionaria as she was known. There is little doubt she became the symbol of that historical and heroic struggle against the fascists led by General Franco. A Spanish Communist Party publication at the time declared that “Dolores Ibarruri is the symbol and the incarnation of a better tomorrow, she is the far-seeing guide who leads the people to the goal of victory.” Even Paul Preston, a conservative historian, says “There is little doubt that for many, veneration of Pasionaria was spontaneous and sincere.”1
“To this day, her role in raising the morale of the defenders of Madrid, her much-quoted words to the women of the beleaguered city, her immortal farewell speech to the International Brigades have not lost their capacity to move those who sympathised with the Republican cause.”2
Dolores was born on the 9th December 1895 in Gallarta, an iron ore mining town village in Vizcaya. She was the eighth of eleven children. Her father was a miner and her mother was also a miner before her marriage. Her political background inherited from her family was monarchist and devoutly Catholic. Dolores said of herself “I am of pure mining stock. Granddaughter, daughter, wife and sister of miners … . I have forgotten nothing.” She reached a rudimentary level of education at the village school until poverty forced her to leave school and leave her ambition to become a teacher.
At the age of 20 she married a socialist miner Julian Ruiz. The marriage was not a happy or prosperous one and she lost several children because she could not afford medicines to heal their sickness. Her husband introduced her to socialism and Marxism, which she extended by reading in the library of the Casa del Pueblo in Somorrostro where they lived. Her husband Ruiz was arrested in 1917 and, left alone with her new born baby of November that year, she welcomed the Russian revolution as a beacon of hope. In 1918 she wrote an article for a miners’ newspaper and used the pseudonym Pasionaria (passion flower) by which she would be known for the rest of her life.
In 1921, when the Partido Communista de Espana (PCE) was founded, she and her husband quickly abandoned the Socialist Party to join the communists.
The ‘20s for Pasionaria were a time of giving birth under incredible hardship while her husband was in and out of jail because of his activities in the Communist Party. Her work among the women of Somorrostro included organising a rally at a local tavern to protest against men coming home drunk and being violent to their wives and children. She also stopped a train with conscripts going to a war in Morocco. The growing significance of her work in the Communist Party saw her elected to the Central Committee of the PCE in 1930.
In the municipal elections of 1931 Pasionaria’s oratory came to the fore. This was the time her talent was first recognised. She later became one of the world’s best-known orators. In the early ‘30s Pasionaria was promoted to a position in Madrid, on the Secretariat of PCE, responsible for the women’s section of the party and with journalistic duties on the party paper. These roles contributed to her increasing talent as a public speaker, combining a deep knowledge of her subject with an emotional connection to the people. At this time she was also imprisoned on a number of occasions. On one charge she spent a period of seven months in prison for “insulting the government”. At the same time she had to cope with the break up of her marriage and organise for the care of her two surviving children. Such an impressive woman did not have long to wait for international recognition. She was frequently invited to Moscow and with her growing number of contacts was invited to head the Spanish Women’s Branch of the “the World Committee against War and Fascism”. In 1934 she was invited to the first World Congress of that organisation.
Returning to Spain shortly after, she was tireless in aiding the miners affected by the brutal repression which followed an insurrection of workers in Asturias. The PCE and the Committee against War and Fascism were quickly declared illegal because of their work supporting the workers.
La Pasionaria and the party were principally concerned for the children of miners caught up in this repression. She organised for the children to be sent to working class families in other parts of Spain or to the Soviet Union. She led 150 children over the Pyrénées to assist their evacuation to the Soviet Union.
When she returned in 1934 she was arrested, but a few months later walked that same hazardous path over the Pyrénées to address a meeting in Paris to raise funds for the victims of the Asturias repression.
In 1936 she organised a further evacuation of 200 from Asturias but no sooner was that completed and she was again arrested, spending two months in prison.
She was released in time for the popular front elections of 1936 and was elected as one of the two communist deputies from that area. She played a prominent role in the election campaign and the district of Asturias returned thirteen Left candidates out of seventeen for that region.
On the day after the elections, she prevented a bloodbath at a prison where political prisoners were demanding amnesty. The gaolers had set up machine guns to kill any prisoner who attempted to escape. Pasionaria went to the prison Governor in Oviedo, and said she would take full responsibility as a deputy of the Spanish Parliament, for the release of the prisoners. Preston comments: “Not without an element of demagoguery, her precipitate action captured the popular mood.”3
Shortly after, Pasionaria was greeted in Madrid with a tremendous rally as she arrived to take up her seat in Parliament.
The popular front government saw liberal and left republicans join forces with socialists and communists to oust an extremely oppressive right-wing regime. Many anarchist supporters also voted for the popular front candidates, even though the anarchists themselves, as was their tradition, did not stand for election.
The new government began to carry out its election platform. Thirty thousand political prisoners were released. An education plan was initiated and a programme of agrarian reform began, fulfilling the dreams of the landless peasants.
Other policies included a reorganisation of the criminal justice system, reform of the army and police, measures to counter the depression in industry, a public works programme, and amendments to social legislation, including fixing a minimum wage.
On July 18 1936 a group of Spanish army officers, General Franco among them, staged a rebellion against the newly-elected Republican government. This military act of aggression against the popular front government was prepared for and coordinated by the right in Spain, the wealthy landowners, the industrialists, the monarchists, the fascist Falange organisation, and most of the church hierarchy.
The Civil War in Spain lasted from July 18, 1936 to April 1, 1939.
On July 19, 1936, the day after the fascist rising, Pasionaria gave a radio address on behalf of the PCE. Making a rousing appeal to every man, woman and child of all regions of Spain, she coined the phrase “No pasaran!” (“They [the fascists] shall not pass!”). This became the battle cry of the Republicans.
Two days later as people became outraged by the uprising of the generals and reacted by burning and looting property and assassinating those thought to be behind the uprising, Pasionaria used her celebrity to publicise the Communist Party’s policy in that tense and awkward time.
The Communist Party appealed for order and discipline. She said:
“We understand your indignation at the crimes of the rebels, but do not let yourselves be dragged along by those who want to lead you down the road to destruction, of shameful robbery and of arson.”
On 3rd September 1936 she was part of a Republican delegation to Paris and she addressed a huge crowd in the Winter Velodrome where she coined another of her famous phrases: “We, the Spanish people would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”
She also made the prophetic statement about the rise of fascism in Europe: “ ... do not forget, let no one forget, that if today it is our turn to resist fascist aggression, the struggle will not end in Spain. Today it’s us; but if the Spanish people are allowed to be crushed, you will be next. All of Europe will have to face aggression and war.”
The appeals of Republican Spain fell on deaf ears in the capitals of the “non-interventionists”, Great Britain, France and the United States. They refused to supply arms and equipment to the legitimate Government of Spain. Only the Soviet Union supplied equipment to help the Spanish people resist fascism.
During the Civil War she increasingly came to prominence with her unrelenting activities in support of the fight against the fascist Franco forces. During the siege of Madrid, which began on November 6, her courage was on display every day as she ran up and down the trenches keeping up morale and assisting in whatever way she could to get supplies and ammunition to the troops.
She was made an honorary major (comandante) and at the time, courageously and defiantly said: “This is not the moment to weep for our dead but to avenge them. The raped women, the murdered militia men demand vengeance and justice; vengeance and justice are what we owe them and vengeance and justice is what we will impose on the executioners of the people.”
The defence of Madrid was the finest hour of the Republican resistance to the Franco forces. On 23rd November, Franco was forced to withdraw and admit that a frontal attack on Madrid was not working.
In the many twists and turns of the Spanish Civil War La Pasionaria was unfailingly energetic in pursuing a total mobilisation of Republican forces to fight the fascists.
Internal political weaknesses within the Republican forces undermined the unity of effort against the fascists (who had overwhelming material superiority) and this led to the gradual defeat of the Republic. In October 1938, with the weakening of the Republican side, it became necessary to ask the International Brigades to leave the country in the hope that their departure would encourage the “non-interventionists” to assist the Spanish people. When the Brigades left Pasionaria addressed them in a farewell speech.
“Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and universality of democracy. Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!
“You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy's solidarity and universality, in face of the shameful, 'accommodating' spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on the hordes of wealth or the industrial shares which they want to preserve from any risk. We shall not forget you.” After the Civil War she escaped to Algiers and from there to Moscow. She lived for many years after the war and died on 12th November 1989, aged 93. Her body was laid in state at the Communist Party headquarters in Madrid where over 70,000 people filed past it. This courageous and determined woman was forced to spend 40 years in wretched exile, due the machinations of fascism and its supporters in the West, yet she was never crushed nor defeated.
Her work after the Civil War helped keep alive the struggle for democracy in Spain. In no small way, some of the credit for Spain being one of the first to withdraw its forces from Iraq, belongs to La Pasionaria.
A final word on Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria) can be offered by Miguel Nuñez, an education militiaman, quoted by Ronald Fraser.4
“The fusion between culture, and the army of the people, was complete. Learning was not something exterior to the men or the struggle they were engaged in. At the beginning I used to ask myself what these workers and peasants were really fighting for, at the risk of their lives. The only answer I could find was, all those things which the enemy, the reactionary forces of this country, have for so long deprived them of. And access to culture was one of these … .
“When all the men in his unit had learnt to read and write, which cost a number of them considerable effort, it moved him to see with what excitement they picked up a newspaper and, almost spelling the words out, read it. It was though they had crossed a tremendous barrier. Then they almost invariably sat down to write two letters. The first to wives telling them that they had learnt to write. The second to La Pasionaria, to inform her of the good news. ‘We are not only fighting the enemy, we are learning too; you can count on us’” (emphasis added)