1939: Jose Aranguren, Civil Guard general

Add comment April 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Spanish general Jose Aranguren was shot on this date in 1939 by Franco’s Spain.

A brigadier general of the Civil Guard — an internal-to-Spain paramilitary/law enforcement force that remained predominantly loyal to the Republic during the Spanish Civil War — Aranguren (the very cursory English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish) at the outset of hostilities efficaciously suppressed the Nationalist rebels in Barcelona and even gave evidence that contributed to the execution of his mutinous opposite numbers.

From 1937, he served as the Republican military governor of Valencia.

He eschewed the opportunity to flee Spain at the end of the war, counting on his faithful adherence to his plain duty to vindicate himself against the fascists.

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1936: The Seven Martyrs of Madrid

Add comment November 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Seven Martyrs of Madrid became martyrs.*

These sisters of Catholicism’s Visitandine or Visitation Order were the last remaining to watch over their convent, which had been mostly evacuated for fear of anti-clerical violence in the unfolding Spanish Civil War.

Indeed, even these seven felt it wiser to stay in a nearby apartment where they secreted the convent’s treasures and kept their holy orders as quiet as possible.

Their precautions were justified — but insufficient. On the night of November 17, weeks after the Spanish capital was besieged by the Francoists an anarchist militia tossed the place, interrogated them, and then returned the next day to have them summarily executed on the outskirts of town.

“I beg God that the marvelous example of these women who shed their blood for Christ, pardoning from their hearts their executioners,” Pope John Paul II said when beatifying these sisters in 1998, “may succeed in softening the hearts of those who today use terror and violence to impose their will upon others.”

* Technically, only Sisters Gabriela de Hinojosa, Teresa Cavestany, Josefa Barrera, Ines Zudaire, Engracia Lecuona, and Angela Olaizola were shot on the 18th. Sister Cecilia Cendoya escaped her captors but later turned herself in and obtained the crown of martyrdom a few days afterwards.

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1936: Melquiades Alvarez, a liberal in a revolutionary time

1 comment August 22nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish politician Melquíades Álvarez was shot by the Republicans.

A centrist who disdained “two equally despicable fanaticisms … red fanaticism and black bigotry,” Alvarez (English Wikipedia entry | the more comprehensive Spanish) fell into the chasm torn by the Spanish Civil War.

The Gijon-born former barrister noted for his oratory had been in public life as a liberal back to the last years of the 19th century and in 1912 co-founded the Reform or Reformist Party. Although sympathetic to the democratic aspirations of the Republican movement, the Reform Party was cool to forcing a confrontation with Spain’s monarchy. He was briefly president of the Congress of Deputies before the military coup of Primo de Rivera. Alvarez opposed Primo, judiciously.

I recalled many years ago going to see another vacillating Liberal, the unfortunate Melquiades Alvarez, after he had ventured to criticise Primo at a public dinner. He was shivering in a travelling rug waiting to be arrested while he told with pride that he had made his speech in such guarded, euphemistic and even allegorical terms that no one would have been quite sure what he meant. He vacillated to the end and now the militia have shot him in the Carcel Modelo.

V.S. Pritchett

By the onset of the Republic in the 1930s, Alvarez’s institutionalism and anti-Marxism had his political tendency drifting rightwards in a revolutionary era, to the extent of actually joining the conservative coalition known as CEDA. Alvarez would surely have said that the Republic left him; a liberal to a fault, he even in these years defended the son of Primo de Rivera when this founder of the fascist Falange was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the Republic.

So the start of General Francisco Franco’s rebellion in 1936 found Alvarez in Madrid as a center-right parliamentarian — right in the path of a sharp political repression immediately leveled by the Republicans against perceived internal enemies. Alvarez and other right-leaning politicians were arrested in early August. Many, like Alvarez, were eventually shot by Republican militias after the barest of legal proceedings.

“You kill a man who only did you good,” Alvarez spat at his executioners before they opened up on him. “You slaughter in the worst way any idea of freedom and democracy, you pack of cowards and scoundrels!” (Quote translated from this Spanish-language pdf account of Alvarez’s last days.)


In this 1917 cartoon, Alvarez, a key political player during Spain’s crisis and near-revolution that year, swaps the caps of monarchism and republicanism in an “illusion” … for “everything remains the same”

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1939: Las Trece Rosas

Add comment August 5th, 2018 Headsman

The Spanish Civil War’s victorious fascists shot Las Trece Rosas — “the thirteen roses” — on this date in 1939.


Plaque at the Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid in honor of 13 young women shot there by Francoist troops on August 5, 1939. (cc) image by Alvaro Ibanez.

Earlier that 1939, Franco had clinched victory by finally capturing the capital city after a siege of 29 months. A punishing suppression of the Spain’s leftist elements ensued, running to hundreds of thousands imprisoned, executed, or chased into exile.

Our 13 Roses were members of a communist/socialist youth group, JSU, and they had been arrested in rolling-up of that organization. They were crowded into the overflowing dungeons of the notorious women’s prison Las Ventas.

A few Spanish-language books about Las Trece Rosas

And there they resided on July 29, 1939, when their JSU comrades struck back against the dictatorship by assassinating Isaac Gabaldón, the commander of Madrid’s fascist police.* The 13 Roses were immediately court-martialed and executed in revenge. Their names follow; there’s a bit more detail about them in Spanish here:

  • Carmen Barrero Aguado (age 24)
  • Martina Barroso García (age 22)
  • Blanca Brissac Vázquez (age 29)
  • Pilar Bueno Ibáñez (age 27)
  • Julia Conesa Conesa (age 19)
  • Adelina García Casillas (age 19)
  • Elena Gil Olaya (age 20)
  • Virtudes González García (age 18)
  • Ana López Gallego (age 21)
  • Joaquina López Laffite (age 23)
  • Dionisia Manzanero Salas (age 20)
  • Victoria Muñoz García (age 19)
  • Luisa Rodríguez de la Fuente (age 18)

The affair is the subject of a 2007 Spanish film.

* Gabaldon’s predecessor, the police commander under the Spanish Republic, Jose Aranguren, had been removed from his post and executed in April.

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1940: Julian Zugazagoitia, Minister of the Interior to republican Spain

Add comment November 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the late Spanish Republic’s former Interior Minister was shot by Franco’s dictatorship, having received him from the hands of the Gestapo who arrested the man in exile.

A socialist journalist, Julian Zugazagoitia (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish) was tapped for the ministry gig by Prime Minister Juan Negrin — a man to whom history appointed the distasteful destiny of trying to turn the Republic away from the abyss that gaped for it.

Negrin’s major resource in this doomed project was Russian aid* — aid conditioned on Kremlin internal control within Spain, against the other factional groups (anarchists, social democrats, and so forth) that comprised the Republic’s “popular front”. Indeed, Negrin himself came to power thanks to a bloody internal coup against anarchists and anti-Soviet communists. Zugazagoitia found this distasteful but for his year in the government he had to toe the line on it: pressed by a British delegation over the political arrests — and sometimes murders — of pro-Republic dissidents like Andres Nin, Zugazagoitia allowed that “We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like.” (quoted (p. 86) in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)

Though he managed to escape abroad as the Republic fell to Franco’s armies, Zugazagoitia was caught by the Gestapo in France; as they had done with his fellow politician Lluis Companys in a similar spot, the Germans deported the former Minister of the Interior to certain execution in Spain.

Zugazagoitia’s grandson, also named Julian Zugazagoitia, directs the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, USA.

* An embargo on arms shipments by most western countries all but forced Spain to buy Russian arms, on Russian terms.

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

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1936: Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, Falangist

Add comment October 29th, 2015 Headsman

Falangist politician Ramiro Ledesma Ramos was executed on this date in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Ledesma (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) launched the first fascist publication in Spain as a perspicacious 25-year-old admirer of Mussolini and Hitler.*

La Conquista del Estado — the expressive title was cloned from Curzio Malaparte‘s Italian fascist magazine — positioned Ramos as one of the leading apostles of the right in early 1930s Spain. Despite his youth, he’s been credited by later observers as one of the clearest, earliest intellectual exponents of fascism in Spain. Ledesma affiliated from the start with the Falangist movement Jose Primo de Rivera, and personally signed off on the party’s yoke-and-arrows logo and its motto “¡Arriba España!”

Spain’s Republican government had him detained in Madrid with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. With the fascist armies closing in on Madrid in late October, Ledesma was among dozens of political prisoners taken out and shot without trial at the cemetery of Aravaca.

* His philo-Hitlerism allegedly led Ledesma to imitate the Fuhrer’s flopover coiffure.

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1936: Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Falange founder

1 comment November 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republicans shot Don José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera, 3rd Marquis of Estella, Grandee of Spain.

The son of Spain’s 1920s dictator, Primo de Rivera founded in 1933 the Falange, Spain’s native fascist movement.

At the October 29 founding convention that year at Madrid’s Theatre of Comedy, Primo de Rivera scathingly pilloried the wan democratic rituals that coming years’ conflict would sweep aside. “The most ruinous system of wasted energy,” he jeered at liberal democracy, where men with leadership waste their talents in hollow electoral hustling and parliamentary rigmarole while the nonsensical ephemeral whims of a formless plurality pass for the vision he attributed to the time before Rousseau ruined everything. “What alone mattered to the liberal state was that a certain number of gentlemen be sitting at the polling station, that the voting start at eight o’clock and end at four, that the ballot boxes not get smashed — when being smashed is the noblest aspiration of all ballot boxes.” (The full speech is available in Spanish here.)

Primo de Rivera espoused for Falangismo the same impulses — of unity, of destiny, of national rebirth, of the triumphant collective — that animated Europe’s similar extreme right stirrings in those years. Only 35 years before, Spain had lost her empire, near enough in memory to inform an acute ache of loss.

In a poetic sweep we will raise this fervent devotion to Spain; we will make sacrifices, we will renounce the easy life and we will triumph, a triumph that — you know this well — we shall not obtain in the upcoming elections. In these elections vote the lesser evil. But your Spain will not be born out of them, nor does our frame for action reside there. That is a murky atmosphere, spent, like a tavern’s after a night of dissipation. Our station is not there. I am a candidate, yes, but I take part in these elections without faith or respect. And I say this now, when so doing may cost me every vote. I couldn’t care less. We are not going to squabble with the establishment over the unsavory left-overs of a soiled banquet. Our station is outside though we may provisionally pass by the other one. Our place is out in the clear air, beneath a moonlit sky, cradling a rifle, and the stars overhead. Let the others party on. We stand outside vigilant; earnest and self-confident we divine the sunrise in the joy of our hearts.

Unlike the Naziism in Germany or Fascism in Italy, Falangism never grew into a force capable of conquering state power itself. Just thirty-three months after Primo de Rivera’s founding address, the Spanish Civil War erupted. The Falangists’ alliance with Francisco Franco — after the war, they would be combined with the Carlists into the only legal political association* in Francoist Spain — spelled great gains for their membership rolls but it was still the General who called the shots.**

Primo de Rivera’s share in this alliance was a voluptuous cult of personality as Spain’s preeminent right-wing martyr, fine posthumous work if you can get it mitigated only by the necessity of undergoing the martyrdom. The fascist prophet was already in prison at the time Franco struck the first blow of the war: he’d been arrested in Madrid on weapons charges. From his cell he carried on a brazen correspondence with Nationalists conniving to subvert the hated Spanish Republic, and when his activities were discovered and prosecuted that autumn in light of Franco’s July revolt they could scarcely have been better framed to incur the utmost measure of judicial wrath.

In consequence of his martyrdom, November 20 remains down to the present a hallowed day for the far right in Spain.


“Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”) is the Falangist anthem; the lyrics are generally credited to Primo de Rivera.

* The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, or “Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive” (FET y de las JONS) — or less exhaustingly, the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement).

** Primo de Rivera and Franco didn’t like each other much personally, either.

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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1940: Lluis Companys, Catalan president

3 comments October 15th, 2013 Headsman

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.

Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.

Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.

And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.

That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.

As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.

As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.

It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”

Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)

Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.

When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.

Condemned after the formality of a perfunctory trial for “military rebellion” conducted on October 14, 1940, Companys was shot the very next morning Montjuic Castle. (See Franco: A Biography)

Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.

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