Purity and Danger

Time and again politicians come a cropper over a minor episode which they have failed to foresee and which blows up into a crisis that escapes their control. Casas Viejas was an Andalusian pueblo of some two thousand inhabitants, a sizable number of whom embarked on an ill-conceived rising in 1933 against the government of the Spanish Republic. In re-establishing “order” a degenerate captain of the Assault Guards, a unit recently set up by the government, massacred twelve peasants and day laborers. The subsequent outcry discredited the prime minister, Manuel Azaña y Diáz, and with him the democratic republic of which he was the most able and eminent defender.

Jerome Mintz’s splendid book shows how it all happened. The rising of Casas Viejas was not, as we were all led to believe by Eric Hobsbawm, the work of “pre-political” primitive rebels stirred by messianic frenzy. The villagers had been organized loosely in the anarchosyndicalist union, the CNT, which consistently opposed the Republican government as compromised and reformist. Their rising was the response of a poverty-stricken, half-starving community to the call for a nationwide revolutionary strike issued by the fanatics of the Iberian Anarchist Federation, the FAI.

Professor Mintz first shows how the revolutionary purists of the FAI gained control within the CNT by tactics of terror and factional bullying first evolved by the Jacobins in the French Revolution, and how they flung the prestige of that great union into sponsoring a strike that was an exercise in revolutionary gymnastics and had no chance of success. “The uprising in Casas Viejas,” Jerome Mintz proves, “was a pathetic attempt to join an ill-fated national in surrection.”

On January 10, 1933, the local FAI leader sent a message to the faistas in Casas Viejas ordering them to carry out an insurrection. The CNT union in the village was run by moderates who knew that the anarcho-syndicalist national revolution had fizzled out; but, as one of them said, “I lack the words to convince the youth. We can’t hold them back.” Casas Viejas lurched into an isolated, doomed rebellion. On January 11 a small group besieged the Civil Guard barracks. Since poaching was a local occupation there were plenty of shotguns in the village. In the attempt to take the barracks two guards were shot dead. The pueblo was soon retaken by a force of Civil Guards. Most of the rebels fled to the hills, but two took refuge in the thatched cottage of “Seisdedos”—“Six Fingers”—an elderly charcoal burner of mild anarchist leanings. A Civil Guard went to the door of the cottage and was shot. It was then that Captain Rojas arrived with his Assault Guards, their nerves on edge. They burned the cottage, shooting like rabbits those who ran out from the flames. If that had been all, there would have been no fuss, no Casas Viejas affair. But Captain Rojas rounded up twelve men at random and shot them in cold blood.

This was the massacre of …

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