Book Review: The ‘Fifth Column’ in Madrid

June 14, 2017

Julius Ruiz. Paracuellos: The Elimination of the ‘Fifth Column’ in Republican Madrid during the Spanish Civil War Brighton, UK; Chicago; Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2017.

Julius_RuizJulius Ruiz has established himself as a scholar well versed in the repression and violence of Madrid during and after the Civil War, and especially the violence against civilians perpetrated by the Republican side. In this book, he tackles the case of Paracuellos, the massacre of some 2,500 political prisoners by Republicans in the small town of Paracuellos de Jarama in November and early December 1936.  While no one disputes that this crime occurred, a considerable mythology has grown up around it.  Many Republican supporters, then and now, have stressed the role of the Soviet NKVD in Madrid , but explain that they were operating at a distance from their supposed Republican allies. Francoist historians have also blamed the Soviets, but insist that Soviet control of the Republic and Spanish Republicans was the definitive part of the story.  The argument of Soviet design is prominent in recent works such as Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust. Of particular interest to many was the role of Santiago Carrillo, a Spanish Communist who at age 21 was in charge of security in Madrid and subsequently a crucial figure in Spain’s transition to democracy.  In this new work, Ruiz seeks to separate fact from fiction and apply a non-ideological eye to the evidence.

Ruiz’ first argument is that it is wrong to consider the events at Paracuellos as somehow exceptional in the history of Madrid in the fall of 1936.  He argues instead that the violence of Paracuellos was not masterminded by the NKVD or the responsibility of anarchist and other “uncontrollables” in Madrid.  The violence was part of a process of terror motivated by a fear that a Francoist “fifth column” was present and active in the city.  Ruiz centers his attention on the Comité Provincial de Investigación Pública (CPIP) of the Popular Front government, created in August 1936 to improve public security well before the NKVD arrived.  As Francoist forces came closer to Madrid, the fear of a fifth column increased and by early November, 10,000 political prisoners were held in Madrid jails, while another 8,798 were in foreign embassies seeking asylum. A series of sacas, or killings of prisoners, increased around Madrid that autumn.  In this atmosphere, policing was approached with a revolutionary vigor, and complaints about arrests and violence from the British Embassy were dismissed out of hand.  Ruiz argues that the murders that occurred at Paracuellos and vicinity were indeed unorganized and chaotic, but were not surprising given the increase in repression against suspected Francoists that marked the autumn of 1936.  The height of violence, November 7-8, saw some 650 prisoners shot.

Ruiz argues that the events at Paracuellos were not exceptional in the history of Madrid in the fall of 1936. 

The blame associated with the Soviets, Ruiz says, was a result of a propaganda campaign that appeared after the killings.  This material argued that the Soviet intervention had brought with it the effective removal of a Francoist fifth column in Madrid.  While the Soviets, like others, were genuinely concerned with the potential of fifth column activists to weaken the defense of Madrid, Ruiz effectively shows that the NKVD and other Soviet advisors had little influence over the CPIP in this period. He writes, “Spanish Communists did not need their Soviet comrades to tell them to act brutally against the internal enemy.” Ruiz focuses on Santiago Carrillo with this line of argument, emphasizing that he and others acted without formal approval from the national Directorate of Security to round up and move out prisoners for murder—orders that Ruiz characterizes as “from below.” The CPIP and its leaders like Santiago Carrillo pushed for radical action and November 1936 was the height of this; indeed, killings of prisoners declined greatly in the months that followed.  Opposition to this violence emerged in the person of Melchor Rodríguez, appointed “Inspector General of the Prison Service” on November 9, 1936; he sought, unsuccessfully, to end the Paracuellos operation in early November, but later succeeded, supported by colleagues such as Manuel de Irujo, who publicly condemned similar violence in Barcelona. In emphasizing these actions, Ruiz demonstrates the diversity of Republican views on violence, repression and fifth column activism in the intense early months of the Civil War while also arguing that the Government, in the end, did not act itself to stop the killings as they were occurring, thus making itself somewhat complicit in the events.

Ruiz is not interested in a comparison of levels of violence carried out by the Republicans vs. the Nationalist side. Rather he seeks to put the events of Paracuellos in a context that influenced not just public order officials like Carrillo to advocate for violence but also the Republican government to turn away from what was happening, at least for a time. In this way, Ruiz argues that Republican repression was fostered by the decision to allow divisive rhetoric from anarchists and other leftists antifascists to develop to such an extent that revolutionary acts must follow. This was the atmosphere of Madrid in 1936.

David A. Messenger is a Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of South Alabama.  He is the author most recently of Hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain (LSU Press, 2014).