La Pasionaria, Spanish Anti-Fascism’s Greatest Orator, Remained Defiant in Exile

During Spain’s Civil War, Dolores Ibárruri was famed worldwide as La Pasionaria, the brilliant orator who stirred anti-fascists’ souls. Fleeing to Moscow in 1939, she soon became the exiled Communists’ leader — both political guide for a defeated party and a “Spanish mother” confronting the expectations of her male comrades.

Dolores Ibárruri addressing a rally in Madrid in 1936.

When the Spanish Republic fell in March 1939 after three years of civil war, forcing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians to flee the country, only about two thousand of them were admitted into the Soviet Union. Dolores Ibárruri was the most famous of this select group, and perhaps the most famous woman in the world at the time. Born on December 9, 1895, into a family of impoverished miners in Spain’s Basque country, by 1939, she had become an international symbol of the Spanish struggle against fascism. In one of his earliest columns from Spain, Soviet journalist Mikhail Koltsov described Ibárruri as a “daughter of the people — yesterday a simple, illiterate worker, today one of the leaders of the Spanish Communist Party . . . a simple Spanish woman in a black housedress.”

In her 1962 memoir, Ibárruri presented herself in similar terms. As a young girl, she had dreamed of becoming a teacher. But poverty prevented her from completing her education. In 1916, she married a miner and trade union activist, Julián Ruiz, with whom she had six children; only two survived to adulthood. A year after the Russian Revolution, she began writing for the local miners’ newspaper under the pseudonym “La Pasionaria” — the passionflower. In 1921, she and Ruiz joined the tiny, recently founded Spanish Communist Party (PCE). By 1933, Ibárruri had moved high enough in the party’s ranks to travel to Moscow for a meeting of the Comintern’s executive committee. Her rise to international fame began with the radio address she gave in July 1936, the day after the military launched a coup against the Republic, when she declared “¡No pasarán!” These words would become the most recognizable anti-fascist rallying cry of the era: “They shall not pass!”

During the Civil War, Ibárruri’s popular influence and appeal had less to do with a specifically Communist message than with her powerful — and profoundly gendered — performance of defiance and self-sacrifice. In 1935 or 1936, around the time of her fortieth birthday, she had begun always appearing in widow’s black. This costume disguised the fact that she was separated from her husband and allowed her to turn herself into an icon. In a letter, published in Pravda, to the Soviet actress who had played her in Aleksandr Afinogenov’s 1936 play Salut, Ispanii!, Ibárruri attributed her success as an orator to her ability to express — to become — the suffering and courage of the Spanish people: “My voice is the outraged cry of a people that does not wish to be enslaved . . . In my voice sounds the cry of mothers, the lament of women in bondage, demeaned and scorned.”

A Mother to the Exiles

In her 1984 memoir, Ibárruri scarcely mentioned the transition from the frenzy of wartime Spain to the routine of Comintern bureaucracy. Instead, from forty-five years’ distance, she defined her role in the USSR in terms of her maternal responsibility to her own children and to all the Spaniards in that country. Offering few details, she emphasized her joyful reunion in Moscow with her children, Amaya and Rubén. Her narrative then moved beyond her intimate circle, as she observed that “in some ways all the exiled Spaniards were my family.”

As she took up the task of mothering the exiles, Ibárruri depended on her ability to infuse public messages with emotion — something that had long been her trademark. Participating in fewer mass meetings and making fewer public appearances than in Spain, she used her correspondence with the exiles to express political commitments in personal, even intimate terms. She presented herself as the center of a community united by memories of wartime heroism and sacrifices — and by shared hopes for a speedy return to Spain and the defeat of fascism there.

A review of Ibárruri’s copious correspondence with the émigrés provides a glimpse of her self-presentation and its reception and suggests that the role of Iberian mother was more than symbolic. Ibárruri and her correspondents, both prominent and rank-and-file exiles, who wrote requesting everything from help securing a pension or housing to permission to join the party, took seriously her responsibility for their material and emotional well-being. She did this both as La Pasionaria and, from 1942, as PCE general secretary, after the suicide of her predecessor José Díaz. After the German invasion of the USSR, a group of Spanish pilots asked her to help them get to the front. In 1944, when a lovelorn comrade asked her to meet with his estranged wife on his behalf, Ibárruri agreed to try to effect a reconciliation. After the meeting, she bluntly informed the husband that his wife “has ceased to love you,” and advised him to look to “the fulfillment of your duty for some compensation for this lack of affection.”

Dolores Ibárruri (National Library of France)

While Ibárruri presented herself as the mother of the exiles, as a party leader she necessarily crossed traditional gender boundaries. And it was in her actions as PCE leader — where the party’s vocal commitment to gender equality met its aggressively masculinist culture — that the trouble began for Ibárruri in exile. Unlike critics of Romania’s Ana Pauker and Poland’s Wanda Wasilewska — women who shared something like her prominence in the communist movement — those who disparaged Ibárruri rarely described or derided her as masculine. Instead, they imagined her as an oversexed, out-of-control woman — the black housedress notwithstanding. Her opponents in inner-party power struggles focused on her affair with Francisco Antón, a political commissar about fifteen years her junior. When the Nazi-Soviet Pact and Hitler’s subsequent invasion of France made possible a prisoner swap to free Antón, who was being held in a French internment camp, Ibárruri’s rivals characterized the diplomatic machinations that brought him to Moscow as grounded in vulgar desire, and thus unworthy of a communist.

Abdicated Responsibility?

The question of how best to be a Spanish communist (woman) in the USSR constituted a central theme, both implicit and explicit, of the conflicts within the party leadership that followed the suicide of previous general secretary Díaz. The power struggle culminated in 1944, when Jesús Hernández, who, along with Antón, had been dispatched to Mexico the previous year, attempted to turn the Latin American emigration against Ibárruri. In her memoir, Ibárruri noted dryly that Hernández “tried to orchestrate a small coup d’état” in Mexico but failed to “win the support of fellow émigrés in Latin America.” But the minutes of the late-night central committee meeting held in May 1944 — which resulted in the expulsion from the party of both Hernández and his ally Enrique Castro Delgado, who was still in Moscow — tell a fuller story.

The minutes of this 1944 showdown offer a rare view of party leaders in action. The archival traces of PCE central committee meetings in this period are often quite scanty. In some cases, the archive provides nothing more than the meetings’ resolutions without any sense of the preceding discussion, in others a general summary of the agenda. By contrast, the record of the May 5, 1944 meeting runs to more than fifty pages and often reads like a verbatim transcript. Both the minutes and Castro’s dissenting retrospective account make clear that the battle hinged on defining what behavior was appropriately “communist” and “Spanish” in the context of exile and war.

Exile magnified the ambiguities in communist normative codes as Spaniards — and Ibárruri more clearly than most — were torn between different ways of understanding and enacting loyalty to the Spanish cause and their Spanish comrades as well as to Stalin and the socialist fatherland. If her status as Spanish mother bolstered her authority, it also offered powerful grounds for critique and limited her room to maneuver. As Ibárruri noted in her opening statement at the central committee meeting, her opponents focused on her alleged failure to ensure the welfare of the nearly three thousand children evacuated from Spain to the USSR during the Civil War, and who were now suffering from tuberculosis — this, at a time when the Nazi-Soviet war was generating disease and malnutrition on a massive scale. Ibárruri’s opponents depicted her as substituting Soviet values for Spanish Communist ones. No longer the protective Iberian mother, Ibárruri had become, her critics argued in their retrospective narratives, Stalin’s “disciple,” the “priestess of Stalin’s temple” bent on turning Spanish children into “good Bolsheviks.” In their interventions, Ibárruri’s allies answered these charges with evidence of her maternal abnegation. Ibárruri’s secretary, Irene Falcón, did not deny the children’s illness but bore witness “to the fact that Dolores has suffered not as a party leader but as a mother for the misfortunes suffered by each [Spanish] child in the Soviet Union.”

Dolores Ibárruri with Fidel Castro.

The most caustic disagreements in this debate on communist values centered on how to define communist (feminine) propriety and “normal” communist relations between men and women. Ibárruri’s supporters linked Hernández’s political crimes to the influence of his wife; he had “fallen,” Juan Modesto explained, “into the hands of an adventuress,” and therefore, far from leading the life of a “party militant,” he was engaging in “orgies, carousing, friendships with noncommunists, and hostility toward his old comrades in struggle,” especially Ibárruri.

In their memoirs, Ibárruri’s opponents made analogous accusations, often depicting her alleged abdication of maternal responsibility and transgression of norms of sexual behavior in strikingly malicious — not to say misogynist — terms. Hernández charged that while she let the children suffer, she and her lover lived a life of debauched privilege. Castro described her as a menacing and lustful “Exterminating Angel.” Allowing someone else to put words in his mouth, Castro’s memoir quoted Rafael Vidiella, a Catalan communist, who had testified to a conversation with Castro in which the latter voiced opposition to both Ibárruri and Hernández. In Castro’s account of the meeting, Vidiella declared that Castro “told me categorically: ‘Dolores is impossible — she’s a woman who reacts with her genitals; Hernández is too frivolous.’” Castro did not specify whether Vidiella reported the conversation accurately, but the picture of Ibárruri is clear. The minutes recorded only that Vidiella stated his discomfort with hearing Castro say “disagreeable” things about Ibárruri. Castro did not note Ibárruri’s rebuttal.

But the central committee record does offer a view of how Ibárruri attempted to reconcile her intimate relationship with the norms of femininity dominant in the Soviet Union and the Spanish party in exile. Her closing statement as reproduced in the minutes includes a rare — perhaps the only — “public” admission of her (now terminated) relationship with Antón. If she had a relationship with him, Ibárruri averred, it was “normal, such as communists have.” Claiming the right to a relationship without specifying what made it “communist,” Ibárruri echoed earlier Soviet and socialist norms. Associated with both communist practices during the Spanish Civil War and the theories of Alexandra Kollontai and August Bebel, such norms accommodated some measure of “privacy and freedom in sexual relations.”

However, even this minimal “private” feminism proved unsustainable, as it was incompatible with Ibárruri’s self-representation as the mother of the exiles. In 1977, in the first interview she gave after returning to Spain, following Franco’s death, Ibárruri denied that her male comrades “tried to limit my work.” But she also characterized them as operating on the assumption that “women are inferior” and that men “are the ones who need to lead and govern.” According to Santiago Carrillo, Ibárruri’s successor as leader of the PCE, breaking off her relationship with Antón and renouncing all “personal life” was the price she had to pay to become general secretary. In any event, her political authority did not give her leverage to challenge the dominant norms and practices that opened the “private” lives of both men and women to party scrutiny, but, at least in the case of discussions within the Spanish party, tended to hold women to more rigid standards of sexual conduct. Unable to define her quite decorous sexual emancipation as “normal,” Ibárruri found herself constrained by the maternal image that authorized her political role.

Stalinist Discipline

By emphasizing the close, often personal, connections between the Spanish and Soviet causes as well as the degree to which Spanish victory depended on Soviet aid and advice, Ibárruri found more room to maneuver in adapting her continued identification with Spain to the Stalinist cultural environment. The overlap of the Soviet and Spanish causes emerged most powerfully and personally when Ibárruri’s son Rubén died at the Stalingrad front in September 1942. As the mother of a son who fought in Spain and then died for the cause at this decisive battle, she embodied both the suffering that the Spanish/Soviet cause demanded and hopes for the defeat of fascism in her homeland.

Ibárruri’s fusion of the Spanish and Soviet causes relied on an idealized and personalized memory of Soviet and international communist aid during the Spanish Civil War as well as a large measure of forgetting. Nowhere was the forgetting clearer than in the 1977 interview, in which the question of arrests in the Soviet Union drew an emphatic response from the eighty-two-year-old Ibárruri: “If Spaniards were arrested I don’t remember . . . I don’t remember, I don’t remember, what more do you want?” This is a startling lapse given the number of friends and acquaintances, both Spanish and Soviet, who disappeared in the purges. It suggests the persistence of Ibárruri’s Stalinism, her party discipline, or perhaps self-delusion. Her unwillingness or inability to remember arrests can also be understood as the obverse of her powerful memory of the Spanish Civil War. It is useful to contrast Ibárruri’s vehement forgetting with her 1975 letter to American communist Steve Nelson, who served as a political commissar in the International Brigades in Spain, on the occasion of his seventy-second birthday. Here, she insisted that neither time nor distance could dim the memory of his commitment to the liberation of the Spanish people. Writing from the USSR, she evoked an international community linked to Moscow but also defining itself in terms of memories, sorrows, and dreams rooted in Spain.

Ibárruri’s efforts in exile to fashion herself as the maternal heart of this community illustrates the power of conceptualizing international communism as structured around the interconnected and diverse lives of individual communists. Her case also highlights the importance of understanding international communism in terms of everyday practices. In Moscow, she worked to reconcile and apply norms of communist (female) behavior developed in the relatively open environment of western communism — and in the extreme circumstances of war — to Stalin’s Russia and the challenges of political exile. Her story confirms that for international communists, communism was more than an institution or a political creed; it was a way of life. Forging political and personal networks in and beyond Moscow, people like Ibárruri made international communism, although never just as they pleased.