Unpublished files reveal how France closed the border to Companys in 1936

It had to be his first trip outside of Catalonia as president of the Generalitat, but on Friday, December 4, 1936 —now he is 86 years old—, Lluís Companys did not cross the border.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
02 December 2022 Friday 23:48
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Unpublished files reveal how France closed the border to Companys in 1936

It had to be his first trip outside of Catalonia as president of the Generalitat, but on Friday, December 4, 1936 —now he is 86 years old—, Lluís Companys did not cross the border. His entourage left the Palau de la Generalitat after eating. He was accompanied by Carme Ballester, his wife since October, to make a brief getaway from weddings that circumstances had not allowed them to carry out.

It had been almost five months since the Civil War had begun. The president had a bad face. He was recovering from an illness that had put him out of circulation for two weeks. He had started it, very opportunely, when the Rebertés affair was uncovered. The plot of elements of Estat Català to put an end to his government, which had resulted in the execution of the general commissioner for public order of the ERC itself, Andreu Rebertés.

Upon reaching the border, the prefect of Perpignan conveyed to Companys the excuses of the French government, but denied him entry into France. Léon Blum's executive, promoter of the non-intervention pact in the Spanish war, did not want to let him participate on Sunday the 6th in the great rally at the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris organized by the Committee for Free Spain.

Blum feared that his presence would further strain the relationship between his Popular Front partners in his government and within French society, divided over supporting the Spanish Republic. In accordance with the motto of the event, Companys attended "to ask for help for the Spanish people that the French republicans abandon the criminal and murderous fury of international fascism."

Its promoters saw themselves as “worthy descendants” of the Commune, of the days of 1848 and of the French Revolution, shouting “down with the war, but long live the Spanish revolution”. They clamored for the abandonment of the policy of neutrality and the shipment of arms to the republic. The posters announcing the presence of Companys, together with that of the treasurer of the CNT-FAI, Joaquim Cortés, and the representative of the PSUC and the UGT, the former Minister of Communications, Rafael Vidiella, were a dead letter.

Stunned, the president's entourage turned around and slept in Girona. After making it public to the four winds, the government issued a brief press release attributing the truncated trip to a few degrees of fever in the president. As he had organized it from Jaume Miravitlles' Propaganda Commissioner, according to him, the failure became known as the “miravitllós viaje de Companys”, as he himself described in Gent que he conegut (1980).

Vidiella, on the other hand, had already crossed the border on the 3rd with a projector and films about the Civil War to show them at the anti-fascist rally. There is no record that the Sûreté générale followed up on Cortés. Yes, he did them to the ugetista. La Vanguardia has located the unpublished reports of this surveillance in the French National Archives, which help to better understand Blum's fears.

On December 4, Vidiella met Donald Darling at the Generalitat office in Paris. The young English journalist, at the beginning of the thirties, had landed in Barcelona, ​​where he had learned Catalan and even collaborated in the weekly Mirador. During the war, Darling acted as a delegate of the Propaganda Commissariat in London and, according to French security, he was commissioned to prepare a paper on the situation in Catalonia.

"It seems to be about reassuring foreigners about the fate of ancient monuments and works of art that, despite events, would not have suffered particularly in the Catalan region." It is plausible that the propaganda product was related to the medieval art exhibition promoted by the Generalitat and would open in March 1937 at the Jeu de Paume.

On Saturday Vidiella's car was about to run over a pedestrian on rue d'Strasbourg. The following day at night in the Winter Velodrome the Catalan and Republican flags dressed the grandstand. The printer and union activist Louis Lecoin, president of the Committee for a Free Spain, was accompanied by the widows of the anarchists killed at the start of the war, Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso. Their portraits flanked one of the president of the Generalitat. In front, 80,000 congregants had paid 3 francs to enter, 1.50 if they were unemployed. Without being present, the great protagonist of the night was Companys.

The act became a cry of French anarchists, communists and radical socialists against the non-intervention of the very government they supported. According to the Sûreté reports, Lecoin accused him of treating the president of the Generalitat "as a scoundrel and worse than Mussolini would have done with a native of Abyssinia."

The writer André Chamson criticized Blum. "It is not up to anyone, not even the government, to prevent the president of the Generalitat, who symbolizes resistance to fascism, from coming to speak in France." Jean Zyromski of the socialist SFIO —the president's party— also defined Companys as “the pride of Catalonia” and added that the government's treatment of him was not worthy of republican France or the Popular Front. Lucien Huart of the Anarchist Union added that it was "an insult to the proletariat, which would not forget it".

Rafael Vidiella expressed that "without the support of Hitler and Mussolini, the military revolt would have been defeated long ago." He also clarified that in Catalonia there was no threat of separatism. Joaquim Cortés, on his side, denounced the crimes of the rebel soldiers. "What we need are not words, but cannons, ammunition, seaplanes and machine guns." The event ended just at midnight.

Despite the mass bath, not all the French were waiting in the Catalan delegation with open arms. It soon spread that Vidiella was staying at the Commodore Hotel, at number 12 Haussman Boulevard. On the 8th, half a thousand people waited for the two cars of the Republican entourage. Seeing the crowd, the inscriptions 'Internal Security of Catalonia' that identified the vehicles that also wore the flag of the Republic were covered. Too late. The police intervened and arrested two people.

That same day, Vidiella met Darling again. During the rest of the war, he continued to be linked to the Propaganda Commissariat, but it is unknown if he materialized the art commission. English was not just any contact. During World War II he was enlisted as an agent of MI9, the section of British military intelligence that helped escape prisoners of war to allied countries occupied by the Axis powers.

When Vidiella returned to Barcelona, ​​the rumors about Companys' unsuccessful trip were already spreading. The consulate of the United States, as the historian Arnau González Vilalta has documented in Catalonia in the European crisis (1931-1939) (2021), attributed it to the desire to avoid a fascist attack against him. L'Action Française, the organ of the nationalists of Charles Maurras, did so at the will of the FAI that the president not leave the country, believing that he could take advantage of it to flee. The communist L'Humanité pointed to Blum. The zeal shown by the Ministry of the Interior's monitoring of Vidiella's movements that this newspaper has located reinforces this last thesis.