Dark moment in history

review of Jesus Hernandez's How the NKVD framed the POUM (1996, pp27, £1)

In translating and publishing this valuable document, comrade Robert Pitt has contributed to our understanding of the Spanish Civil War. Comrade Pitt’s previous pamphlet, John Maclean and the CPGB, was also a useful contribution to our movement - stoking up much controversy and discussion in its wake.

I suspect that his new pamphlet will not rouse quite the same level of excitement as John Maclean did, but you can never tell. This account of the POUM’s suppression is taken from the memoirs of Jesus Hernandez, which was published in 1953 in Mexico as Yo fui un ministro de Stalin (I was a minister of Stalin). Hernandez’s book has never been published in English, though it remains a major source of information for historians of the Spanish Civil War and the PCE.

Hernandez was a loyal and leading figure in the PCE, which he joined in 1921. He spent the early 1930s in Moscow, returning to Spain to become one of the 14 Communist Party deputies elected to the Cortes in February 1936. He was a CP minister in the People’s Front governments of both Largo Caballero and Juan Negrin, who replaced Caballero in May 1937.

Hernandez parroted the PCE/Comintern line without question during the civil war. The fact that he was the commissar-general of the Republican armies of the centre and south of Spain indicates the power and strength of the Stalinites, who ruthlessly crushed all ‘independent’ revolutionary forces - the POUM in particular.

Pitt quotes Hernandez writing in the PCE daily Mundo Obrero in August 1936, where he emphatically declares that it was

“absolutely false that the present workers’ movement has for its object the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship after the war has terminated ... We communists are the first to repudiate this supposition. We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic” (p3).

Interestingly, Pitt points out how Hernandez fails to understand the real reason for the PCE/Comintern’s hostility to the POUM, just attributing it to Stalin’s paranoid and autocratic desire to exterminate all opponents inside and outside the Soviet Union. Pitt states the plain truth, in my opinion, when he writes that Hernandez

“ignores the fact that the PCE’s commitment to re-establishing the power of the bourgeois state and defending the rights of capitalist property necessarily involved the suppression of those like the POUM who, however inconsistently, opposed the destruction of the revolutionary gains made by the Spanish working class in July-August 1936” (p3).

The main bulk of these memoirs consist of a graphic and chilling account of the framing and torture of Andres Nin, now designated a “fascist agent”. For all his mistakes and the disastrous role he played during the course of the Spanish Revolution, Nin was a revolutionary and hardly deserved this fate. Nor does anyone else, familiar as we are with the sophisticated (and sometimes not so sophisticated) and sadistic torture techniques of Stalin’s NKVD. Nin displayed near superhuman courage, refusing to sign the ‘confessions’ which would have automatically led to the deaths of many revolutionaries (or anybody, indeed, who fell foul of the Soviet secret police).

Pitt reminds us of the shameful role played by the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period, which faithfully backed up the lies of the Soviet bureaucracy. In 1938 the CPGB publishing house, Lawrence and Wishart, printed a document entitled Trotskyism in the service of Franco: a documented record of treachery by the POUM in Spain. This included photographic reproductions of documents forged by the NKVD in order to implicate the POUM in a Falangist spy ring. Pitt adds the barbed observation, “British communists today ... still baulk at confronting the truth about Stalinist atrocities in Spain” (p4). To this day ‘official communist’ drones like Jeff Sawtell of the Morning Star continue to cover-up the crimes of the Soviet Union and the PCE, cretinously repeating the charge that the POUM were “ultra-leftists” (or something even more sinister) and automatically denouncing Land and Freedom as “anti-communist”.

Hernandez’s story is told in a lurid and very novelistic fashion, which on occasions detracts from the gruesome subject matter, as the NKVD agents and their PCE stooges become almost comic-book villains. Hernandez, for obvious reasons, wildly exaggerates his own opposition to Moscow’s crimes in Spain. However, How the NKVD framed the POUM points to an essential truth - the criminal role of the NKVD and JV Stalin, who cold-bloodedly ordered the arrest, torture and execution of countless thousands of revolutionaries and militants in Spain. It is impossible for these crimes to be covered up, or quietly forgotten about. This pamphlet adds to the case for the prosecution, whatever its inaccuracies may be.

Remember Andres Nin: “at the end of a few days his human shape had been turned into a formless mass of swollen flesh” (p23), his mutilated corpse buried off the highway between Alcala de Henares and Perales de Tajuna. Also remember those whose names have been forgotten.

Hernandez’s memoirs demonstrate, once and for all, that the

“trial which followed against the rest of the POUM leaders was a crude farce based on forged papers and statements wrenched out of the miserable Franco spies, who got promises that their lives would be spared (they were later shot) if they declared that they had been in contact with the POUM people. The magistrates and judges condemned them because they had to condemn them and were ordered to condemn them” (p24).

This dark moment in our history needs to be dragged into the sunlight. The truth is there for all to see. We become stronger by confronting it, weaker by evading it. Make your choice.