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A German Communist in the Spanish Civil War

Eva Eisenschitz

This article appeared originally in 1986, under the title "At the Front During the Spanish Civil War: The Experience of a Communist Emigrant in the Civil War and the Prisons", in a special issue of the Tubingen University students’ journal Tüte which was devoted to the Spanish Civil War. The article provides a first-hand account of the early revolutionary phase of the war, and of the crushing of the revolution in 1937 at the hands of the Stalinist reaction. We are grateful to Mike Jones for providing a translation.

The author was born Eva Laufer in Berlin on 27 March 1912. She joined the Social Democratic school pupils’ organisation in 1927, and in 1929 became a member of the youth section of the KPD(O) (Communist Party of Germany-Opposition), the party led by Heinrich Brandler, August Thalheimer and others expelled from the official Communist Party of Germany for opposing its then ultra-left politics. In 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, Eva emigrated to Holland. Along with her husband, Hans Sittig, in 1936 she went to Spain to assist in the resistance to Franco. There they worked with the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), a dissident Communist organisation with which the KPD(O) had links.

After her escape from Spain, Eva found refuge in Britain. She joined the ILP, which subsequently dissolved into the Labour Party. She worked for the BBC, as a teacher and, in the early 1970s, as a translator for Ian Mikardo MP. At the time the article was written, she was living as a pensioner in London, where she later died.

WE ARRIVED in Perpignan in August 1936, a month after the outbreak of the civil war in Spain. A lorry was to bring us (Hans, myself and a couple of comrades already waiting) to Port Bou. It was a hair-raising journey, sharp bends up in the Pyrenees and just as steep again going down, at a crazy speed. I would have prayed, had I been religious. But we arrived in Port Bou and journeyed on in a car to Barcelona, to the Hotel Falcón on the Rambla Catalunya, the POUM headquarters.

The atmosphere in Barcelona was indescribable. Today one would call it a "high", as after taking drugs, intoxicating and intoxicated. From early in the morning to late at night, the barrel-organs on the Rambla played revolutionary songs. Of course, that could not continue; but while it lasted it was unrepeatable.

All of Barcelona’s 58 churches were burnt down; many still smouldered. Only the large "Sagrada Familia" cathedral by Gaudi withstood everything – it is made of cement. The militiamen, without uniform but with armbands of the POUM or the CNT (anarchists), rifle over the shoulder, go to the front early on, come home again for dinner, hold their siesta and towards four o’clock in the afternoon go off again.

The Hotel Falcón teemed with foreigners, mostly Americans, French, German and Italian emigrants. Many had been living in Spain for some years and immediately made themselves available. We were organised by Else, a German, who spoke fluent Spanish. Her husband Gerhard was a medical orderly at the front.

The big villas on the hills around Barcelona were abandoned by their owners and occupied. They now served the authorities as an administration centre. We were allowed to go in and readily shown around. The shooting of the priests, big farmers and factory owners was over and the revolution was under way. The anarchists and the POUM were the driving forces. The civil war was no longer regarded as a passing trifle; the militias exercised – though still without uniform – and one had to be very economical with the ammunition. Then a ship arrived from Mexico, the Magallanes, with 20,000 old Mauser rifles and 20,000,000 cartridges. It was not much, but it arrived at the right moment and there were no conditions attached. The celebration was indescribable. The first officers were elected and their orders – after detailed discussion – were followed.

We received some pocket money and made ourselves available. On the second evening we met a former school friend of mine from Berlin who, with her friend, had worked in Catalonia since 1933. Great joy. They invited us in and gave me a pair of shoes for the front. The next day I found a note in the hotel: "We have gone to Paris." I was extremely disappointed. Nothing had indicated that they were against the revolution. For us, as German anti-fascists, it was a moral duty to assist the Spanish Republic. And both had left! Perhaps we were naive.

I waited for the next ambulance going to the Aragon front. The first had been full. Ruth, a German nursing sister, had gone with it. We hoped that we would meet up. It never arrived. During the first night on the way to the front it was surprised by Franco’s Moors, with bare feet and curled knives, who cut the throats of everyone. I had to write to Ruth’s old father and describe her heroic death. We could not tell him the truth.

The first Spanish women with whom I spoke wanted to know how we succeeded in not having a child every year. They saved up money from the household budget to enable their husbands to visit the brothel. And only male children counted. A Spanish comrade told me that he had no children. His comrade laughed and said: he has six daughters.

Another point. They wanted to know why I had come to Spain, and why I was even prepared to separate from my husband in order to go to the front. It was surely not because of politics, it could only mean that I was looking for a man. And detailed propositions rained down upon me. We had hour-long discussions about the role of women in the socialist society. Lenin was right: "The emancipation of women must begin with the men."

We were sixteen in the ambulance, which had been donated by the British ILP. We were stationed in Tierz, a village near Huesca, which was in Franco’s hands. The Aragonese Pyrenees, blue and covered with snow, stood in the background. The front stagnated. The first casualty I treated as a medical orderly was characteristic of the Spanish mentality. The ideal human type would unite Prussian disciple with Spanish individuality. For example, it was not considered "manly" to use the latrines in the dugout. One did it outside in the fresh air standing up. We lost several good comrades that way. The digging of trenches also contradicted masculine dignity.

I met Else’s husband Gerhard. He had been the manager of the Breslau Theatre, spoke fluent Spanish and could talk for hours about art. We read Don Quixote together. The October nights were very cold and we all received long underpants.

I only experienced one real attack. Beforehand we got rum in our coffee and marijuana cigarettes. Neither affected me. Afterwards we had neither advanced nor retreated, but had many wounded and three dead. Gerhard and I were in the line of fire a few times. I was terrified!

As I am blood group "O", I am a universal blood donor. There was no other test at that time, only the four groups. The blood was directly transferred. I lay beside the casualty and my blood flowed into his. It was very satisfying to see how a pale face with blue lips would gradually take on colour.

After the attack, every week I gave around 200cc of blood. After six months I received leave. Hans worked in ballistics in Barcelona and awaited his transfer to Lérida. While I was in Barcelona, I met Major Clem Attlee, who would become Labour Prime Minister in 1945, and Fenner Brockway, the Chairman of the ILP. Both wanted to speak with POUM officials and anarchists. I accompanied them everywhere and translated. In the evenings we went together to the café. Fenner wanted to know more than I was able to report to him in my poor English. But it was a very interesting week for me, and I got to know the background which later would lead to the street-fighting in Catalonia.

I was able to get myself transferred to Lérida, and worked in orthopaedics at a hospital for the wounded. We lived in a monastery cell. Hans had a car and chauffeur at his disposal and once took me with him to Manresa, the monastery of the Holy Grail. It was being used by the Catalan War Ministry. A fairytale castle.

April 1937 was a good month. We both worked and made plans for our future life in a socialist Spain.

May 1937. The Soviet Union had sent technicians and food. No weapons.1 Condition: restoration of the status quo in Catalonia and Asturias. The factory owners and landlords should have their rights restored; the clergy, insofar as it was not openly fascistic, should also be permitted; and all non-Communists, that is, anarchists and POUM members, should be purged. The Communists occupied the telephone centres in Barcelona and Lérida; street-fighting resulted, and there were dead and wounded. It was the Russian intention to give the Spanish revolution a respectable face, in order to make it acceptable to the western powers, Britain and France. The untrustworthy generals were again called up, resulting later in democratic strongholds such as Málaga being betrayed. The bourgeoisie emerged from its holes. It was like Germany in 1918, when the reaction hid itself behind Noske and Scheidemann. One had the sense of déjà vu, only this time the CP was the reactionary factor. Apart from the war industry, all expropriated enterprises were handed back to their previous owners. The POUM’s offices were closed, its officials arrested. Andrés Nin, the head and heart of the POUM, was shot. Shock troops were sent against the anarchists, in order to smash any resistance. At the time, Bilbao was already threatened, and every man was needed at the front.

Hans was involved in the Lérida street-fighting. They were some of the worst days of my life: to fight against our own side, to have to defend what the revolution had accomplished since July 1936, and perhaps lose everything in this senseless clash. The POUM, as the weakest party, was the obvious sacrificial lamb. All its members – including ourselves – were described as Franco’s agents, as traitors to the working class. The same had occurred in Germany before the Nazi takeover: the Stalinists had called the Social Democrats "social-fascists". Everything that went on in Spain was logical. The CP sought after "Trotskyists" and shot them. Of course, they came out on top in the street-fighting and on the "ideological front". "If this and that is not done, we will lose the war." And who wanted that?

Though we knew in our innermost thoughts that the war was already lost. For ten months a real socialism had existed, a system worth fighting for. Then the arrests of the POUM members and anarchists started. The Stalinists hated nothing so much as the socialist opposition. Their greatest fury was directed at the supposed or genuine Trotskyists.

Hans had to return to Lérida at the end of May. I wanted to stay in Barcelona for another fourteen days, and take an intermediate medical exam. He was arrested on a bus with a number of others – mostly foreigners. Among them was Else, Gerhard’s wife. He was also in Barcelona, and we regarded ourselves as a "Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Verhaftung" [a play on GmbH, Company with Limited Liability, which prefixed with "ver" becomes "arrests"]. Katia Landau, who had come from Vienna with her husband Kurt, had been arrested together with her.2 Kurt had previously been a private secretary to Trotsky. The CP sought after him. He had enough political experience to know that he would not get out of Spain alive. The anarchists hid him for weeks. Then he changed his accommodation. I brought food and news. He kept stressing something again and again: whom the labour movement has once taken hold of, never gets away again, whether he remains active or not. Two days after my last visit Kurt vanished forever. Then the Stalinists settled their account. After the end of the civil war nobody could prove anything against them.

I tried to alarm the consulates about the arrested foreigners. Most of them were ready to help, made visits and representations, and succeeded in getting those with valid passports deported to France. The British consul was the only exception: "Whoever is still in Barcelona is there at his own peril. Anyone with sense has gone long ago." I was not so easy to get rid of, but asked softly and modestly, who paid him and for what? Then he went red in the face and shouted: "You Communist, get out of here."

In the meantime, Barcelona was bombarded from the sea. That was a new experience. It is curious how one can get used to air raids, but get horribly scared when the shooting is lateral and the front walls of the houses vanish.

In August 1937, it was my turn. I was arrested with six Spanish comrades in the home of Andrés Nin, where I went to fetch a blanket for Hans.

The first two months I was incommunicado. That is not as bad as it sounds. I would have received no visitors in any case – all my friends were in jail, except Gerhard. I only know that it was a military prison. I was interrogated a few times by a German Stalinist. He screamed that I was an agent of Franco and a German fascist spy. It paid not to reply: I had not known any important POUM officials – once I had sat for three hours on a bus with George Orwell, that was all. Only my connection to Landau could have been dangerous, but they knew nothing about it. At my interrogation, the Stalinist said that a bullet would be too good for me, ammunition was scarce!

Then I was moved to the official women’s prison, which was managed by a POUM comrade. She was the wife of Andrade, a top official. In a country where the women have very few rights, they keep their own name; therefore, nobody knew who she was. She could not grant us any relief, but as political prisoners we were not required to work and through her got to know what was going on outside. We were thirty "politicals", living in a large hall with a magnificent view. Apart from an unpolitical German, whose husband was an anarchist, and a just as unpolitical French woman, we consisted of Spanish POUM or anarchist comrades. The prison held around six hundred women; the so-called criminals were originally nuns, or wives of small racketeers and war-profiteers.

Every morning we used the showers – never meeting any of the others. I heard that they thought we must have been horribly mucky, because we used so much water. In any case, they exchanged soap for bread. Not that we had plenty – I think it was 300 grams per day, two plates of rice or pea soup, and two cups of a brown, hot fluid. We were very hungry, but the civilian population had to work with the same ration.

The nuns were all middle-aged. Sister Teresa remains in my memory because of her great kindness. She looked after the scantily-supplied chemists’s shop. Never was she impatient or did she say a bad word. One would have thought that we socialists would have incarnated the devil on earth to her – on the contrary, she mothered us all and always knew best. I have often thought of her and would like to know how she ended her days.

My friend was Maria-Teresa Sarda, who had been imprisoned as a POUM member together with her mother. She gave me Spanish lessons and I avenged myself with historical materialism. We attempted to learn an international shorthand, but it was a total failure. For two hours every day we ran round the long dining table and did gymnastics. Our stomachs had shrunk, so that after the first really hungry months we managed on our rations. In any case, it was easier to be hungry than to be without soap. Moreover, we had lice. Very rarely one of the Spanish comrades received a parcel. Everything was shared out. We had a doctor among us, a German, allegedly "political", older than us. One day she received a parcel and vanished with it; nothing was said, but we never spoke to her again, she was excluded by everyone. She had broken a fundamental rule and had to pay for it.

A certain scene remains in my memory: the wives of about ten men – said to be fascists – had gone to the men’s prison early around 5 o’clock to say their goodbyes to them before they were to be shot. After an hour they came back, emitting heart-rending screams, tearing at their hair, tearing their clothes – it was terrible to have to hear it, and we all suffered with them. There was no talking and all activities stopped. Then came the afternoon: around 4 o’clock the same women entered with flowers in their hair. They had castanets in their hands and danced and sang. The dances were joyful. They had earlier manifested their sorrow – and now life carried on. This psychology will for ever remain incomprehensible to us.

Hans was released three weeks after my arrest and returned to France with his customary "visa sans arrêt". In the summer of 1937, on the last day of the validity of his passport, he went back to Holland. Without a visa for a final destination one was not permitted to stay in France. My passport had run out. Whoever had arrested us had taken all our papers, which I, of course, have never seen again. The foreigners with valid passports were slowly released; only the German and Italian emigrants remained. The uncertainty over the length of the sentence was the most worrying. Wholly disregarding the gradual advance of Franco’s troops, something we of course never mentioned.

I loved Spain, the country, the people, the climate, the food, even the always recurring mañana, with which they put off all decisions. But from the beginning of 1938 we all knew that Franco’s victory was only a question of time.

One day I was called into the office. An official from the British consulate was there with a parcel wrapped in newspaper. I had to swear to my identity. I took the parcel in my left hand, but he made it clear that it had to be the right hand. So I swore that I indeed was who I was. It was only later that I found out that I had sworn on the bible. He then went with me into the city to get me photographed. No word about what for, why, when, etc. Three impatient weeks elapsed; meanwhile, it was August 1938. Then an old motor car drove up: the consular official. He brought a British travel document, valid for three months. I had to pack my things in all haste – there was not much. I left my Spanish money in the prison; the peseta was not exchanged. A few quick tears were shed – and the thirteen months ended as they had begun, without transition.

At that time there were hardly any foreigners left in Barcelona. The British destroyer Imperial sailed between Barcelona, Valencia and Marseilles, and had evacuated all the British. If one more passenger had now been reported, this had to be an important person. So the crew were drawn up in lines under the leadership of the captain, and I boarded the ship in a thin skirt, leather jacket and espadrillas. I was given the cabin of the second in command. After the meal – with knife and fork, after such a long time – I asked to speak to the captain and explained the mistake. He laughed, found it all very funny, and said that if I wanted I could remain aboard and sail round the Mediterranean with them. I politely declined and after seventeen hours I left the ship at Marseilles without a penny and sought out the British consulate.

Who could describe my dread as I was confronted with the horror from Barcelona? He glanced at me and said: "We already know each other." And then began a cannonade of insults against all Communists and riffraff such as I. As it had become too dangerous to be in Barcelona, he had removed himself to the safety of Marseilles. I wanted only money enough to telegraph to Amsterdam and somewhere to stay overnight. I promised to pay the money back the next day – he was convinced that he would never see it again. But the money arrived, I repaid it and travelled to Paris.

September 1938 – Munich – the war had been averted once more, the French mobilisation was cancelled. Women cried tears of relief in the streets.

I was received with open arms by the German comrades, especially by Brandler and Thalheimer, for whom I was to give a detailed report. It was, of course, a bit disappointing – after all, I had spent the previous thirteen months in prison.

I could not go to Hans in Holland; the Dutch put Spanish volunteers immediately over the German border.

As soon as the first relief at being in a land at peace was over, I had the feeling that I should go back to Spain; I longed to be there, perhaps I could still help ... It was completely irrational, idiotic.

I have described the external events of this catastrophe, which the Spanish civil war and revolution was. But what I cannot describe is what the attraction of Spain consists of, the noise, the smell, the clear atmosphere of Barcelona in the early morning, and especially the sight of the milicianos and the comrades, which I could still describe now in the smallest detail. Spain had destroyed our marriage – we could not find any country where we could be together before World War II; afterwards it was too late. Nevertheless, I would not have missed the experience for the world.

Editorial Notes

1. The Soviet Union did, of course, send arms to Spain (although Stalin shipped the country’s gold reserves back to Moscow in payment). However, the arms were withheld from the anarchist and POUM militias at the Aragon front.

2. Katia Landau published an account of the repression of the left in Spain in her pamphlet Le Stalinisme en Espagne, Paris 1938, a translation of which appears in Revolutionary History, Vol.1, No.2, 1988.