“Trotskyists on Trial:” Defining Spanish Republican Antifascism in the Spanish Civil War

All too often, the Spanish Civil War is discussed by way of subsequent events. The trend is just as marked in public discourse as it is in academic study. Whether intellectuals conceptualize the terms of World War II as the “first chapter” in the battle between the Axis and Allied powers, or in the Cold War lexicon as a struggle against Communist or Soviet domination, the ideological and historical complexity of the conflict is often swept under the carpet. Its points of contingency are obscured and the contemporaneity of events is lost. Although the intervention of Nazi, Italian, and Soviet forces certainly expanded the scale of the war, its origins were domestic. And while its demise came in the context of this internationalization, the Spanish Republic and Civil War were products of Spanish developments. In addition to the distortions of Francoist historians, the left has also obscured the Republic’s political culture. The popular notion that the USSR “betrayed” the Republic remains mainstream. This narrative of Spanish victimhood before a “Stalinist” Soviet apparatus found fertile ground in the prevailing anti-communism of the early Cold War.i The durability of such narratives is testament to their emotional power and their neat fit into the global Cold War metanarrative.

The commentary of the late historian, Tony Judt, in his volume on twentieth century Europe, is telling. Judt argued that, “communist strategy in Spain turns out to have been a dry run for the seizure of power in Eastern Europe in 1945.”ii In other words, it was the first iteration of Soviet imperialism in Europe. Knowingly or not, Judt was reiterating a longstanding tradition of interpretation of Soviet involvement in Spain. In his recent study, Moscow, 1937, historian Karl Schlögel wrote, “the Spanish battlefield became the space in which the transfer of experiences could take place, including experiences of the Moscow of 1937.”iii The imposition of Soviet tropes on the history of the Spanish Republic has long been a common refrain. The reduction of the Republic’s political culture and its ultimate fate to the foreign policy whims of the USSR obscures more than it illuminates.

It is important that, for both Schlögel and Judt, the authority often cited is George Orwell, whose well-written but narrow account of the Civil War (Homage to Catalonia) is probably the most widely read book on the topic today. However, Orwell experienced Spain in a very specific way—his perception of Soviet activity was filtered through the anti-Stalinist milieu of  the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). The POUM, a small dissident communist party, was prosecuted by the Spanish Republic for its participation in the famous “May events” of 1937, in which revolutionary groups in Catalonia clashed with the Republican police. The Republic’s trial of the POUM leadership, Schlögel writes, “in fact took place, tolerated by a Republican government facing its own demise and under constant harassment by the communists.”iv Historians typically cite the Spanish Republican Prime Minister and Socialist leader Juan Negrín as the instrument of Soviet goals in Spain.

The trial took place from 11-22 October 1938 in an old and elegant villa with red Spanish roof tiles on Reina Elisenda, which overlooked the Barcelona neighborhoods of Sàrria and Sants below. Foreign and Spanish journalists shared the courtroom with armed guards and judicial personnel. The tribunal’s wrap-around patio was crowded with journalists and onlookers packed in to catch a glimpse through the courtroom’s windows. In the seat of Andreu Nin, whom the Tribunal tried in absentia, the POUM leaders placed a bouquet of flowers and a photograph. While international newspapers and organizations reported on the trial throughout its duration, the Spanish Republican press censored articles during the trial to prevent public order disturbances. What coverage circulated within the Republic did so clandestinely. Both Spanish Communists and POUM sympathizers complained of the difficulty in publishing on the trial until the Tribunal released the sentence on 1-2 November.v

With Soviet archives partially opened and key Spanish collections now available (including Negrín’s own archive), the task of recovering of the complexity of Soviet intervention in Spain is more pressing than ever. While historians and militants have committed thousands of pages of polemic to the Soviet NKVD’s abduction and killing of the POUM’s leading theoretician, Andreu Nin, few have attempted to understand the subsequent trial of the POUM’s remaining leadership.vi Doing so complicates narratives of Soviet dominance in political and judicial affairs in Spain. Nin’s killing, although repulsive, was targeted and specifically carried out on account of his relationship with Trotsky and the broader international Soviet campaign against Trotskyists in the midst of the Stalinist repressions of 1936-1938. The POUM’s trial, far from representing the “extraterritorial show trial of the NKVD,” as Schlögel put it, served starkly different interests. Archival materials illustrate how the Republican judiciary refused to submit to Soviet pressure. Despite the efforts of Moscow’s representatives in Spain, the Republic’s Espionage Tribunal rejected Communist accusations of “Trotsky-fascism” and  treason,  and threw out evidence doctored by Soviet operatives. Yet it convicted the POUM leadership of rebellion against the Republic for its participation in the May events. What then did this ostensible “show trial in Barcelona” in fact show?

The POUM’s highly publicized trial illustrated the weakness and lack Soviet influence in the Republic outside of military affairs, and communicated the independence and liberalism of the Spanish government.vii The courtroom became a forum for defining the Republic’s political culture to a broader trans-European audience and for challenging British and French refusal of aid. It provided a platform for the performance of two distinct narratives of the war, two distinct forms of antifascism. These narratives engaged with the principle questions of the wartime Republic: the primacy of war versus revolution, the “correct” form of antifascist struggle, and the Spanish Republic’s position vis-à-vis the western European powers. On the one hand, the prosecution team emphasized the legitimacy of the Republican government’s Popular Front approach to antifascism, its juridical legality, and its national war of independence. It pointed to the negative impact that the POUM’s revolutionary politics and actions had on the security of Spain and the fragile Republican rearguard. On the other hand, the defense gave a detailed story of the collapse of the Republican state, the class character of the war, the revolution in the streets, and the specifics of the POUM’s revolutionary antifascism.

The trial therefore presented two definitions of antifascism: one that placed the primacy of a liberal Republic at war against foreign invaders, and one that emphasized the importance of the revolution and class struggle in understanding the war. The Espionage Tribunal, the legal face of the Republican state, then had the authority to define the acceptable form of antifascism and to castigate unacceptable deviations. And although they differed on almost all points, the crucial commonality that ran through the discourse of both the prosecution and the defense was an explicit recognition that the tribunal had given judicial guarantees to the accused. The two narratives came together to affirm that the judges had been impartial and the court had upheld Republican judicial norms.

Finally, the POUM’s trial, which Prime Minister Negrín and his close advisors closely followed, rejected Soviet dominance in Spain and sought to place the Republic alongside the liberal western democracies in a last-ditch effort to secure some sort of aid or mediation from France and Britain. Negrín used the highly-publicized trial to situate the pluralist Republic squarely in the camp of the western democracies, against both fascism and Stalinism. The Soviet attempt to carry out a “Moscow trial in Barcelona” failed not because of the shrewd defense of the accused, nor the “miracle” of the judges’ “great integrity and strength of conviction,” as one historian put it.viii Its legal form was by design. It was not a “Stalinist” show trial because Negrín’s government never intended for it to be.

Figure 1. The headquarters of the Republic’s Special Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason, the site of POUM’s trial, with patio in foreground.ix

During defendant questioning, State Prosecutor José Gomís attempted to establish the anti-Popular Front politics of the POUM. He presented a narrative of Republican  national struggle against the foreign invasion by the Axis powers. The POUM’s error had been its failure to put aside its revolutionary aspiration to seize state power and its lack of support for the broader Popular Front’s antifascist struggle by a coalition of bourgeois republicans, socialists, communists, and anarchists. During the examination of the POUM leader Julián Gorkin, Gomís asked, “Why have you declared that the ongoing war is not a national war?” Gorkin, the long- time dissident communist militant, responded, “Because Spain has not declared war against any nation, but rather built a front against a fascist military uprising that provoked a class war. Spain

had not declared war on any nation and it was a class war.”x During the examination of Juan Andrade, the POUM’s co-founder, Gomís quoted a POUM publication. “This paper says,” he asserted, “The Negrín government is not what the Working Class needs; it is a Government of the traditional military and of the counterrevolution in the rearguard.” Gomís continued, “Is this final paragraph true? …Was this not a provocation?” Andrade refused to consider it as such, and categorically denied that the POUM acted as a provocateur in the May street fighting.xi

Gomís alternated between questions about the POUM’s actions during the May events and its supposed connections with suspicious foreigners whom, he alleged, had connections with fascist espionage. The POUM’s support for the May “uprising,” he argued, constituted treason, and its foreign connections constituted espionage. The POUM attempted to take advantage of the street fighting to seize power, ignoring the extent to which such an action would imperil the Republic in the international sphere. The Republican government, Gomís argued, represented both the Spanish working class and the other progressive political currents of the Republic. Thus the Spanish war was not a class war but rather a national struggle. Gomís called high-ranking military and government officials to the stand to testify, including former Interior Minister and Socialist, Julián Zugazagoitia, and the General (and Communist) Antonio Cordón. He asked questions about the impact that the POUM’s alleged crimes had on the Republic’s international prestige, and the extent to which the alleged crimes had favored either the Republican national war of independence or fascist aggression. However, throughout the trial, the POUM’s defense attorney, Vicente Revilla, managed to undermine and discredit the evidence given by witnesses. The claims made by military officials that the POUM had abandoned the battlefront in May 1937 were undermined when Revilla established that witnesses had received the information indirectly. Zugazagoitia testified on Negrín’s explicit advice that “the only thing that matters to the government and to me is the truth. I think you should appear and tell it.”xii Zugazagoitia gave testimony very favorable to the POUM defendants despite the fact that he was called as a prosecution witness.

Figure 2. Defendants Julián Gorkin (left) and Pedro Bonet during the POUM’s trial.xiii

The trial, Gomís argued, was in no way connected to the struggle against Trotskyist ideology. His closing statements made the point explicit: “I do not in any way want to look for concordances with the ideology of Léon Trotsky, nor any other ideologies. No! I only refer to delinquent offences, to criminal offences…”xiv On the other hand, it is clear that defense attorney Revilla assumed he would be facing a Moscow-style trial. His questions largely dealt with establishing the difference between the POUM and Trotskyist groups. The POUM defendants themselves assumed they would be tried for their semi-Trotskyist political ideas. One responded “Yes, señor Vyshinksy!” to Gomís’ questions, a reference to the Soviet Procurator General in the contemporaneous Moscow trials. The implication was clear. The defense also sought to establish the antifascist credentials of the POUM defendants, and to explain their particular revolutionary form of antifascist struggle.

Revilla’s closing statements presented an alternative narrative of the civil war and the POUM’s role within it. He identified the POUM as a confluence of Marxist currents unified under left Marxism. The advancement of the working class through the 1935 Popular Front elections, he argued, had triggered the military uprising in July 1936 that caused the war. The collapse of the state sparked revolution in the cities and countryside, and caused a “profound disassociation” between the government and the workers. The former had only sought to legalize the actions of the latter post hoc. The workers had been the “firmest and most decisive” in the struggle against the military uprising. But the POUM had a different conception of the Popular Front. It had taken part of the Popular Front electoral coalition in an opportunistic way. It had “only accepted the union with the petite-bourgeoisie and whatever other party, at the moment, out of convenience and exclusively to achieve certain objectives.” And it reserved the right to criticize it.xv

To Gomís’ charges of espionage, treason, and instigation of the May events, Revilla responded, “the defense cannot effectively present anything more than a simple, pure, and plain denial…”  Revilla’s  approach  was  simple:  to  give  an  alternative  narrative  of  revolutionary antifascist struggle, which the POUM endorsed, and to generalize the POUM’s actions in order to make the case that many other parties and organizations had taken similar if not identical actions (such as the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo). However, only in the case of the POUM, he argued, were such actions considered criminal. Revilla’s discourse drew on the same liberal principle of the free right to criticize. However it also centered class as the crucial factor in the development of the war, and attempted to place the actions the POUM within a broader context of revolutionary actions by the working class.xvi Gomís requested 15-30 years of penal labor imprisonment for the POUM leaders; Revilla demanded the acquittal of all defendants. The trial came to a close and the judges deliberated on sentencing over the next week. The sentence acquitted the POUM leaders of espionage and high treason because their actions, in the view of the court, did not constitute such crimes. Yet the court convicted five of the seven defendants of rebellion against the Republican government. The POUM leadership had sought to achieve “a solid base of support for the conquest of political power… in order to substitute the legitimate government for another purely worker and peasant government willing to install its doctrines in a revolutionary way…” The POUM’s goal, according to the sentence, was the establishment of “a communist government organized in agreement with the tenets of the party.” Regarding the May events, “regardless of whether the violent events in Barcelona were originally a spontaneous movement… such a situation was taken advantage of and used by the defendants to bring their purposes to reality…” According to the court, this disrupted social discipline and endangered the legitimate constitutional Republic’s reputation in the international sphere. Nevertheless, the sentence affirmed the POUM leaders as “long time, marked antifascists.”xvii

The POUM leaders had freely defended their political positions and actions in an open, public court. The famous Russian-American anarchist activist Emma Goldman, a strong critic of the USSR, the Spanish Republican Popular Front, and the POUM, attended the trial. Yet, she wrote that it took place “absolutely free from partisanship, political trickery or Communist venom against the men on trial… the court was extremely objective… it was the fairest trial I had ever witnessed.”xviii This was precisely the sort of impression that Negrín and his judiciary sought to convey with the trial, and it would appear they succeeded even with the harshest of revolutionary critics. The outcome angered and frustrated Spanish Communists and Soviet advisors in Spain. Stoyán Mínev, the Bulgarian Comintern representative in Spain and head of the Communist anti-POUM Comisión del Proceso del POUM, wrote that the sentence was “scandalous.” “It was literally said in court,” he wrote in a report to Moscow, “that a cordial atmosphere should reign in the courtroom.”xix Pedro Checa, a Spanish Communist leader and member of the anti-POUM Comisión, wrote directly to Negrín to express his “profound indignation” with the sentence. The “monstrous” trial, he wrote, had confirmed the POUM leaders as antifascists. “We are sure that you will understand, as we do, that such a ‘sentence’ is unacceptable for the government and the people.”xx The last remaining Soviet NKVD official in Spain, Naum Eitingon (“Kotov”), himself met with Negrín and protested the anti-Soviet comments made by the POUM leaders during the trial, referring specifically to the comment about Vyshinsky.xxi But Negrín refused to cede; he approved the sentence, insisted that it not be appealed, and indeed it was not. Thus, the Spanish Communists and Comintern advisors could only consider the trial a success insofar as they could distort its actual proceedings.

The judges had worked through the complicated political debates that characterized that revolutionary period. It heard two distinct narratives of the wartime antifascist struggle – one that emphasized its revolutionary and class character, and one that formulated the events in national terms as a struggle against foreign invaders. These two forms of antifascist struggle would soon overwhelm the continent and go on to divide Europe in the immediate postwar period. Although both the defense and prosecution explicitly concurred that the tribunal had granted all judicial guarantees to the defendants and had handled the trial with the utmost respect for Republican constitutional law, this was not the only element that had a legitimizing effect. Republican power, expressed through the tribunal, took the position of both prosecutor and judge. Its body of prosecutors set the parameters of the case and shaped the contours of courtroom content, and its high judges had the power to decide on the punishment of the POUM leaders. It had a platform for dismissing one narrative and accepting another. Thus the POUM’s trial, insofar as it can be considered a “show trial,” communicated in both content and form the authority and legitimacy of the Spanish Republican government, its interpretation of acceptable antifascism, its independence from Soviet power, and its adherence to liberal judicial legality, however delicate it may have been in the desperate months of late 1938.


Jonathan Sherry is a Council for European Studies Mellon Fellow, Visiting Researcher at the London School of Economics Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, and PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pittsburgh. He has held CES, Fulbright, Botstiber, and Mellon Foundation fellowships and has won the 2015 George Watt Prize for essays on antifascism. Sherry’s research addresses political repression, judicial politics, and Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War. He will defend his dissertation, entitled, “A Moscow Trial in Barcelona? Spanish Republican Legality, the Soviet Union, and the Performance of Justice in the Spanish Civil War” in May 2017.




i Julián Gorkin, España, primer ensayo de democracia popular (Buenos Aires: Asociación Argentina por la Libertad de Cultura, 1961); Burnett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage: The Communist Conspiracy in the Spanish Civil War (London: Hollis & Carter, 1961), and The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 672; Ronald Radosh, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (New Haven: Yale, 2001), 212.

ii Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2012), 190.

iii Karl Schlögel, Moscow 1937, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Polity Press, 2012), 107.

iv Schlögel, 106.

v Archivo Fundación Juan Negrín (hereafter AFJN), 1MDN2000206020002004-8.

vi The NKVD was the Soviet “political police,” the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or Narodyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del.

vii For a full treatment of the conflict over the prosecution between Soviet advisors and Spanish Republican officials,

and the lack of influence of the former, see the forthcoming, Jonathan Sherry, “A Moscow Trial in Barcelona?  Spanish Republican Legality, the Soviet Union, and the Performance of Justice in the Spanish Civil War” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2017).

viii Victor Alba, “Cinco magistrados, cinco acusados y una silla vacía,” Polemica, no. 35-36 (Dec. 1988).

ix The building, which still stands today, is presently a medical clinic. Source: Jonathan Sherry.

x Centre d’Estudis Històrics Internacionals (hereafter CEHI), Procés POUM, Caja 3, Carpeta 7. Trial quotations are taken from the stenographic court transcripts, released by the Spanish Ministry of Justice in the late 1980s.

xi CEHI, Procés POUM, Caja 3, Carpeta 8.

xii Juan Simeón Vidarte, Todos fuimos cupables (México D. F.: Tezontle, 1975), 744.

xiii CEHI, DPP.POUM, El Proceso del POUM, 1989-1992 misc.

xiv CEHI, Procés POUM, Caja 4, Carpeta 10.  xv CEHI, Procés POUM, Caja 4, Carpeta 10.  xvi CEHI, Procés POUM, Caja 4, Carpeta 10.  xvii AFJN, 1MJU1000000020207002-15.

xviii Emma Goldman, Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution, ed. David Porter (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2006), 166-167.

xix CEHI, Arxiu Moscú, 4.9h. The lack of Soviet influence on the trial was to such an extent that Stoyán Mínev

complained in his postwar report that the Comisión was forced to learn of developments in the prosecution by reading newspapers. Archivo Histórico del Partido Comunista de España (AH-PCE), Sig. 58, ‘STEPANOV.’  xx AFJN, 1MGO9060000020010001.

xxi AFJN, 1MDN2000206020002004-8.





Published on November 3, 2017.


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