José Manuel Márquez Rodriguez and Juan José Gallardo Romero, Ortiz: General sin Dios ni Amo, Editorial Hacer, Barcelona, 1999, pp382
THIS is the first biography of Antonio Ortiz, one of the most intriguing characters in Spanish Anarchism. When the authors traced him to an old people’s home, he was 88 years old, and had returned from exile in Venezuela in 1991. Ortiz was born in Barcelona in 1907. He started work at the age of 11, and joined the woodworkers’ branch of the CNT when he was 14.
When the Republic was installed in 1931, Ortiz supported the radical FAI tendency against those who wanted the CNT to be a more conventional trade union. In November 1932, he became the Chairman of the wood workers’ union, where he participated in bitterly-fought strikes. In January 1932, after a revolt in the mining area of Alto Lobregat brought fierce government repression, Ortiz became the Secretary of the strikers’ support groups, and was jailed and tortured following armed clashes with the police in January 1933. Such actions widened the split between FAI supporters and the moderate Trentistas who were soon to split from the CNT. Ortiz joined the newly-formed affinity group Nosotros, whose members included such illustrious militants as Durrutti, Francisco Ascaso, Gregorio Jover, Ricardo Sanz and Garcia Oliver. The group decided to assassinate Dencás, the Catalan regional government’s fascistic police chief. Ortiz thought that the action might be counter-productive, but he accepted the majority decision. He was prepared to throw the home-made bomb which was meant to kill Dencás, who, however, failed to show up.
The Nosotros group was a key element in the fighting which smashed the military rising of 19 July 1936 in Barcelona, where Ascaso was killed. Once the counter-revolution was defeated in Catalonia, two CNT columns advanced into Aragon, one led by Durrutti, the other by Ortiz. When Durrutti was persuaded that he was needed in Madrid, Ortiz remained as the leading Anarchist in Aragon, and was a thorn in the side of the Stalinists. An Aragon defence council was formed at a meeting in October 1936 to carry out the CNT’s programme of social revolution. Joaquín Ascaso, a cousin of Francisco Ascaso, became its President. In Catalonia itself, the militia committees had been replaced by Companys’ bourgeois government. Elsewhere in the republican areas, bourgeois rule was hardly challenged.
After the Stalinist putsch in May 1937, Ortiz was removed from his command, as were other Anarchists and POUM members. Aragon was the only area not under the control of the Republican government, which was determined to crush the social revolution. However, this was not easy, as there were three CNT divisions on that front, all commanded by prestigious militants. An order dissolving the council was made in June, but was not put into effect until August, when government troops under the command of the Stalinist General Lister arrested libertarian activists, and seized and destroyed communal property.
The CNT leaders were unwilling to stand their ground, as they would have been accused of helping the Francoists. Ortiz and Ascaso strongly opposed the CNT’s capitulation, particularly that of Mariano Rodríguez Vásquez (‘Marianet’), its National Secretary, who seems to have been anxious that the CNT should regain the government positions that it had lost in May.
Soon afterwards, when about to return to Aragon from a CNT meeting in Valencia, Ascaso was arrested and accused of currency smuggling, but he was released in September without being charged. The affair went back to early 1937, when two members of the CNT’s National Committee were stopped by the police at the French border carrying a substantial amount of money and jewels, which were to be used to buy arms and material for the CNT. At that time the CNT was represented in Largo Caballero’s government, in which Garcia Oliver was the Minister of Justice. According to Ascaso, ‘Marianet’ asked him to accept responsibility, as the occurrence might give the Communists a weapon against the CNT. Garcia Oliver would be able to lose the relevant file.
Garcia Oliver told Ortiz that he had known nothing of the matter, and claimed that ‘Marianet’ was terrified that he would be implicated, as even a short stay in prison would endanger his control of the organisation. Ortiz’s story tallies with Garcia Oliver’s memoirs, but as it was rejected by other CNT members, the affair of the ‘Aragon treasure’ remains in dispute. Many Anarchists believed that Ascaso and Ortiz were engaged in private accumulation, but that would not explain how the ‘treasure’ came into the hands of CNT National Committee members. Ascaso and Ortiz lived out their lives in poverty, so they would appear not to have benefited by the affair. Ortiz, disappointed by the capitulation in Aragon, lost confidence in the CNT leaders, and enrolled in the military academy. He was eventually given the command of the twenty-fourth division stationed close to the French border, but he was removed in July 1938 and demoted to sergeant. He had come to the conclusion that the Stalinists meant to kill him, as he believed they had killed Durrutti.
He fled to France on 5 July with Ascaso and a group of about 10 soldiers which included prominent CNT members. That action outraged many Anarchists, including some who shared his criticism of the capitulation in Aragon. Once across the border, Ortiz and his companions gave themselves up to the police. They were treated well until it was discovered that in the 1920s Ascaso’s cousin had plotted with Durrutti to assassinate King Alfonso XIII. Ortiz had to suffer not only the hostility of the French police, but of the CNT leaders whom he believed had tried to kill him. As the Stalinists saw all Anarchists as potential traitors, Ortiz’s desertion had strengthened the case of the CNT’s opponents.
Ortiz’s later fate was similar to that of many other Spanish refugees. He got out of a prison camp by enlisting in the French army. At the end of the Second World War, he was eager to renew the struggle, in spite of having been expelled from the CNT. In December 1948, he tried to kill Franco by dropping a bomb from a light plane when the Caudillo was watching the yacht races in San Sebastian. The attempt failed as the bay was patrolled by fighter planes. He then emigrated to Bolivia, and later to Venezuela.
The book’s title is appropriate as Ortiz obeyed neither God nor master. If much of the story remains mysterious, this is not the fault of the authors. The book avoids many of the pitfalls of oral history by a meticulous use of varied materials. The authors interviewed Ortiz at length, studied the documents he had preserved for so long, and compared them with the recollections of other participants. They have examined the CNT’s and other archives, and studied the published literature on the Anarchist movement and the Civil War. When the evidence is contradictory, readers are left to decide for themselves.