La Pasionaria, Heroine of the Spanish Civil War

Born 125 years ago today, communist leader Dolores Ibárruri was the most famous symbol of the Republican cause in Spain. Known as "La Pasionaria," she coined the battle cry "¡No pasarán!" — expressing the fearlessness which made her a heroine for generations of anti-fascists.

The Spanish Communist Dolores Ibarruri known as "La Pasionaria" at a meeting of Spanish workers in Geneva. (Keystone / Getty Images)

For her admirers, Dolores Ibárruri was an inspirational Civil War heroine and a universal earth-mother figure. For her Francoist enemies, she was the terrifying virago whose bloodthirsty rhetoric had emasculated right-wing MPs in the Popular Front–controlled parliament. The fear she provoked was reflected in frequent insults casting her as both manly and a “whore.” Her essential crime was that she encouraged women to abandon the serene servility which was considered their proper attitude.

Such views revealed more about the sexual and social fears of right-wing men than about Ibárruri. Yet, the vehemence of such insults is an indication of her historical importance. To this day, her role in raising the morale of the defenders of Madrid faced with the Francoist offensive, her much-quoted words to the women of the beleaguered capital, and her immortal farewell speech to the International Brigades, have retained their ability to move sympathizers of the Republican cause.

Nevertheless, the familiar images of La Pasionaria —  the passionate fire-eater portrayed by both communist legend and anti-communist demonology — give only a partial picture. In the political arena and her private life, Ibárruri’s essential characteristics were strength, realism, and fierce determination to correct injustice. During the hard years of exile in the USSR, a loyal Stalinist emerged who differed considerably from the Civil War stereotypes.

Becoming a Communist

Dolores Ibárruri was born on December 9, 1895 in Gallarta, a mining village in Vizcaya. She was the eighth of eleven children; her father was a miner, and her mother a devout Catholic. Although a rebellious child, she was piously Catholic until the age of twenty — and even flirted with the idea of a religious vocation.

Her first job was as a domestic servant to a local middle-class family. The work was harsh; she had to rise at 6 AM and did not get to bed until 2 AM the following morning. At age twenty she married Socialist miner Julián Ruiz.  She found not happiness but bitter desperation as, in her own words, “a domestic slave with no rights.”

She sought diversion in reading, principally in the Marxist literature provided first by her husband and then by the library of the Casa del Pueblo in Somorrostro, where they lived. Grinding poverty, together with the proselytizing zeal of her husband, turned the previously Catholic wife into a leftist.

News of the October Revolution in Russia provided a beacon of hope for Ibárruri. In 1918, when she wrote an article for the miners’ newspaper, she used the pseudonym Pasionaria (passion flower) by which she would be known for the rest of her life. The choice of a flower that bloomed in spring was nothing to do with her character but a reference to the fact that the article was published at Easter.

In 1921, when the Communist Party (PCE) was founded, she and her husband were both among the Basques who left the Socialists to join the new party. She was soon elected to its Vizcaya provincial committee.

La Pasionaria giving a speech to a crowd in Madrid.

Throughout the 1920s, the human costs of her — and particularly her husband’s —militancy intensified Ibárruri’s appalling hardships. With Julián often in prison, she was left to bring up a family with little money. After he was released, she was often pregnant. Inability to pay for adequate medical care and nourishment for her children contributed to the deaths of four of her daughters.

Her grief and outrage intensified her determination to fight injustice — addressing meetings, writing articles, organizing demonstrations, but also often darning the socks of a comrade or cooking for them. She was an archetypal mother figure to the miners, teaching them to read; yet she was also an early feminist, passionately advocating the inclusion of women in PCE activities. Her growing significance within the party was recognized in March 1930 when she was elected to its Central Committee.

In the campaign for the April 1931 municipal elections, which brought the Second Republic, Ibárruri came to prominence as an orator. Despite frequent nerves, both the content and her delivery gave her speeches enormous emotional power. Her abilities, together with her rarity value as a woman, brought her to the attention of Comintern leaders and she was called to Madrid in September 1931 to work as a journalist for the party newspaper Mundo Obrero.

This move coincided with the final breakdown of her marriage. In subsequent years, she was subjected to frequent arrests which meant separation from her children — something which caused her “tears of blood.” In 1935, at the party’s suggestion, she made the painful decision to send her son Rubén and daughter Amaya to Russia for a few months. However, the political turmoil of spring 1936, followed by the Civil War, meant that she would not see them again for several years.

Her success as an orator led to her selection as a PCE candidate in the February 1936 elections, in which she was elected to parliament. That spring she was increasingly in the limelight, campaigning for amnesties for political prisoners, advocating revolution at mass rallies and supporting strikers.

She was also a great success as a deputy, drawing media attention with her speeches passionately attacking the Right. The military uprising of July 18, 1936 fully revealed her capacity both to inspire and give voice to the popular mood.  The following day, she made a broadcast on behalf of the PCE. In a rousing appeal, she declared “The fascists shall not pass! ¡No pasarán!”  — a phrase which soon became the Republican battle-cry.

¡No pasarán!

In the early months of the war, she worked hard visiting fighting units, lifting the morale of the troops. Her courage and concern for their conditions guaranteed her a warm welcome, and her energy inspired those around her. Stalin’s agent, Mikhail Koltsov, described her work within the PCE leadership, where she provided a link with life in the streets, outside its smoke-filled rooms:

To the severe, masculine atmosphere of the Politburo, excessively dominated by the rule-book, the presence of Dolores brought warmth, joy, a sense of humour or of passionate anger.

Her greatest impact came from speeches appealing to the civilian population to support the militias — and to the rest of the world to support the Republic. Although her tone was broadly Republican and not narrowly Communist, the PCE derived enormous prestige from her emergence as the single most representative figure of the Republic. The pressure on her was intense — and she worked herself to exhaustion. The Austrian sociologist Franz Borkenau commented on “the simple, self-sacrificing faith which emanates from every word she speaks.”

Ordinary people in Republican Spain found their lives turned upside down by the war — and found such a powerful “mother” figure appealing. Every day brought losses of loved ones, food shortages, bombing raids, and the constant anxiety of Francoist terror. The strength and concern emanating from Pasionaria was a beacon of certainty in a sea of insecurity.

Her simplicity and sincerity created a rapport which enabled her to voice the fears and hopes of many working-class people in the Republican zone. Every day, she was inundated by letters from ordinary people and soldiers, asking her to solve some problem or other.

On September 8, 1936, in an effort to mobilize public opinion in France against its government’s decision not to sell arms to Spain, she addressed a huge crowd in Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver. Here, she coined another resounding phrase: “the Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees.” She ended with a disturbing and prophetic warning:

And do not forget, and let no one forget, that if today it is our turn to resist fascist aggression, the struggle will not end in Spain.  Today it’s us; but if the Spanish people is allowed to be crushed, you will be next, all of Europe will have to face aggression and war.

The Defense of Madrid

The Paris trip established her worldwide as the symbol of the Republican war effort. But she came to even greater prominence during the siege of Madrid.  Her courage was on display every day; even as bombs fell, she sauntered fearlessly along the tops of the trenches, calling for courage and determination in the face of the enemy.

In Mundo Obrero on September 25, she called for a total mobilization of Madrid’s population, with “Militarization: obligatory labour; rationing; discipline; exemplary punishment for saboteurs.” She was also a passionate advocate of a professional army for the Republic.

On October 5, she was made an honorary major in the PCE’s crack Fifth Regiment militia. At the ceremony, she made a belligerent speech:

This is not the moment to weep for our dead but to avenge them.  The raped women, the murdered militiamen demand vengeance and justice; vengeance and justice are what we owe them and vengeance and justice is what we will impose on the executioners of the people.

Her frequent radio broadcasts also helped to maintain Republican morale — and as Franco’s African columns neared Madrid, she turned panic and fear into hope and a determination to fight. From her efforts to raise the morale of Madrid’s women came perhaps the most famous of her battle cries: “It is better to be the widows of heroes than the wives of cowards!”

Invariably accompanied by photographers and reporters, her every action had an impact on morale — and a propaganda dimension. She was regularly seen digging trenches, haranguing the troops, consoling soldiers who had lost their comrades and mothers who had lost their children. At times, she stopped panicked withdrawals by shaming the fleeing soldiers into returning to the trenches.

Pasionaria was tireless, hurrying around the city’s defenses, in one place stopping to deliver an impromptu speech, in another undertaking to do something about the lack of supplies. Sure that Madrid would fall, the Republican government left for Valencia on November 6.

Two days later, in a now terror-stricken Madrid, she addressed an enthusiastic meeting in the Cine Monumental, barely one kilometer from the front. She was greeted enthusiastically — and her speech giving thanks for Soviet aid raised spirits enormously. This was not just a recital of the party line — Dolores was genuinely moved by the Russian assistance to the Republic.

Similarly, she was especially affected by the arrival of the International Brigaders to help defend Madrid, also on November 6. Without thought for her own safety, she shared the same risks as they did in her efforts to help boost their morale.

In the cellars of the Faculty of Architecture on the northern outskirts of Madrid, full of women and children sheltering from the Nationalist bombardment, she addressed the brigaders on November 15. Making herself heard over the sound of artillery shells and machine guns, she again emphasized the international significance of the Spanish struggle:

You fight and make sacrifices for the freedom and independence of Spain.  But Spain is sacrificing herself for the whole world.  To fight for Spain is to fight for freedom and peace in the whole world.

By November 23, Franco had to accept that the frontal assault on Madrid had been beaten back. He moved to a policy of trying to encircle the capital and simultaneously mop up some of the periphery. She would never again be as directly involved in the war effort. But her role in maintaining morale remained crucial.


Ibárruri was infuriated by the fall of Málaga in February 1937 — a defeat for which she held incompetent Socialist prime minister Francisco Largo Caballero largely responsible. She played an important role in the campaign to remove him, through both her speeches and private channels.

An opportunity arose after the infamous May Days, when the anti-Stalinist communists of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) rebelled against the Republic in Barcelona. Ibárruri visited president Manuel Azaña to complain about Largo Caballero’s ineptitude, his timidity with regard to the CNT, and the pernicious influence of his personal entourage.

Largely under Communist pressure, on May 17, Largo Caballero was replaced by finance minister Dr Juan Negrín. Yet, this change came too late to help the Basque Country; in a devastating blow to Ibárruri, Bilbao fell on June 19. In an eloquent article, she expressed her pain — and the conviction that this was a consequence of Largo Caballero’s mistakes.

Desperately anxious about how the war was going in the north, she fervently supported the diversionary attacks on Brunete and then Belchite. In articles published in Mundo Obrero, she paid tribute to the heroic resistance in Asturias. But she also railed against the shortsightedness of the Western democracies, in failing to support the Republic:

We have appealed to the proletariat of the entire world to come to our aid.  We have shouted until we were hoarse at the doors of the so-called democratic countries, telling them what our struggle meant for them; and they did not listen.

By summer, with PCE Secretary-General José Díaz profoundly ill, she carried out many of his functions. She worked day and night, constantly importuned by problems, papers to read and authorize, and visitors to receive. Given her intense commitment to the war effort, she was infuriated by the frequent pessimistic remarks made by defense minister Indalecio Prieto. Within a week of the loss of Teruel in February 1938, she launched a savage attack on him.

On March 16, with Azaña and Prieto inclined to seek international mediation, she led a mass demonstration to pressure the cabinet against this. She and most of the Left saw such a move as tantamount to surrender; they were determined to resist until, they hoped, the Western powers realized that their interests required them to support the Republic.

Members of the Tom Mann Centuri unit of the International Brigaders in Barcelona in September

The entire event was stage-managed. As part of the orchestration of the event, Negrín left the cabinet meeting in order formally to receive Pasionaria. She presented him with the demonstration’s demands for commitment to continued resistance — with which he fully agreed.

But the following month, Franco’s forces reached the Mediterranean — splitting Republican Spain and cutting off Catalonia. In this context, she made a brutally frank report to the Central Committee on May 23, making no effort to minimize the gravity of the situation.

The military defeats that we have suffered in recent months have left us in such a state that we have to declare, without any kind of exaggeration, that, at this moment, the liberty and independence of our country is more directly and seriously threatened than ever before.

She went on to draw a bleak assessment of the international situation, of the difficulties likely to face the central zone and of the ongoing problem of defeatism. She ended with a rousing call for greater unity and discipline behind the program of Dr Negrín, as the basis for resistance. The audience was shaken by her message; yet, in the words of American reporter Vincent Sheean,

the genius of Dolores — her unquestionable genius as a speaker, the most remarkable I ever heard — worked upon them its customary miracle, and she had the whole audience cheering with enthusiasm when she finished.

During the Munich crisis of fall 1938, Negrín proposed the withdrawal of the International Brigades, in the hope that this might tip British and French sentiment in favor of the Republic.  Although she understood the political reasons behind the decision, Pasionaria was devastated by its implications. She had always seen the presence of the brigaders as the ultimate symbol that the Spanish Republic did not have to face fascism alone. The official farewell parade was held in Barcelona on October 29. In the presence of many thousands of tearful, but cheering, Spaniards, Dolores Ibárruri wept as she gave an emotional and moving speech:

Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy. […] We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here those of you who have no homeland will find a homeland, those who are forced to live without friends will find friends, and all of you will find the affection and the gratitude of the entire Spanish people.

Exile and Return

As the war ended in victory for Franco, Ibárruri escaped to Algiers. From there, she headed to France, before being recalled to Moscow.

This escape from Spain was traumatic — and the beginning of thirty-eight years of difficult exile in Russia. With the party fighting for survival against savage repression in Spain — and pursuing much of its activity in exile, in Latin America and Europe — she steered the PCE skillfully and often harshly in the years before Stalinism thawed. After her replacement as general secretary by Santiago Carrillo, she became party president and retired into a more symbolic role.

Ibárruri would finally return to Spain only on May 13, 1977. She would now play a significant role in the transition to democracy. She campaigned energetically in that June’s elections, and was herself elected a deputy. For a brief period in the new democracy’s first parliament, the Communist herself acted as Presidente de las Cortes — an astonishing symbol of national reconciliation.

In her final twelve years, she witnessed the consolidation of democracy and the collapse of the PCE. After a battle with pneumonia, she died on November 12, 1989, aged ninety-three. Her body lay for three days at party headquarters and over seventy thousand people came to pay their respects.

Her funeral in Madrid saw her coffin, draped in the party’s red flag, drawn through crowds of many thousands. After many tributes, a recording of her last speech was played and the crowd sang La Internacional. The woman who had come to maturity as the Bolshevik revolution was taking place died as holes were being knocked in the Berlin Wall and the USSR itself was collapsing.

This did not mean that she had been a failure. During the Civil War, she had progressed from being the mother of her party to a maternal symbol for large swathes of the population in the Republican zone. Throughout her life, her stature had grown commensurately with the scale of the problems with which she had to deal.

She consistently met challenges with courage and was not diminished by defeat. In exile, just as they had done during the Civil War, her speeches and broadcasts helped to keep alive the spirit of resistance to the dictatorship — and of the struggle for democracy in Spain.