Dolores Ibárruri Gómez

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Dolores Ibárruri Gómez

Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (1895-1989) became famous during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) as an eloquent propagandist for the Republican (Loyalist) cause. Ibárruri was known to most of the world as "La Pasionaria" (the Passion Flower), a nom de plume which became identified with her indomitable will and gift as a fiery orator.

Born in the Basque mining village of Gallarta, Ibárruri was the eighth of eleven children. From an early age she seems to have been affected by the abominable working conditions that her father and other miners were forced to endure in order to earn a meager income. Perhaps equally influential in her formative years was her strict religious upbringing. As a youth she impressed others by her devoutness, a trait that later molded her attitude towards politics. Up to the time she left home, however, there was no indication that Ibárruri would one day become a flaming revolutionary. Yet this is precisely what happened. At the age of 20 she married an Asturian miner, Julián Ruiz, who introduced her to the world of left-wing ideas. Not long afterwards she renounced Catholicism, deciding to join the Spanish Communist Party (Partido Comunista de España, PCE) shortly before it was formally established in 1921.

After becoming involved in politics, Ibárruri was at first obliged to divide her time between raising a family and campaigning for a Marxist revolution. But her home life eventually proved to be so miserable—four of her six children died in infancy and she was unhappily married—that she decided to devote herself completely to a political career. During the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) she distinguished herself as a journalist and dedicated party activist. Then, following the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic (1931), she moved to Madrid where her writing talents were put to use on the editorial board of Mundo Obrero, the principal mouthpiece of the PCE. As her reputation as a communist agitator grew, Ibárruri increasingly fell under government suspicion. As a result, she was arrested several times between 1931 and 1934.

Within the communist movement, though, Ibárruri's self-sacrificing and tireless agitation propelled her rise through the party's ranks. In 1930 she was appointed to the PCE's Central Committee, and two years later she was elected to the politburo as Secretary of Women's Affairs. The next year she was sent to Moscow as the PCE's fraternal delegate to the Thirteenth Plenary of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern).

During the period when the right ruled the republic (1933-1935), Ibárruri belonged to the current within the PCE that sought better cooperation between the communists and other left-wing groups. To this end, she helped to organize the Spanish branch of the nonsectarian World Committee of Women Against War and Fascism in 1933, and she campaigned in behalf of the thousands of workers and their families who had fallen victim to the fierce government repression that followed the Asturian rising of October 1934.

Ibárruri's efforts to enlarge the PCE's political base not only represented a departure from the party's past factionalism, but also anticipated the communists' highly successful Popular Front strategy. This policy was adopted at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in August 1935. Above all, the new program called for the formation of alliances among a broad spectrum of parties, including the working classes and the bourgeoisie, as a means of checking the rise of fascism. Not surprisingly, it was a policy that Ibárruri herself enthusiastically promoted in the following months. In Spain's national elections of February 1936, the Popular Front electoral bloc formed by several major left-wing parties emerged victorious. Ibárruri was one of 17 communists elected to the Cortes (Parliament). By the time the Civil War broke out in July 1936, she had already achieved national attention for her fervent and vitriolic speeches against her enemies.

Civil War and Exile, 1936-1977

The Spanish Civil War thrust Ibárruri into many new roles, but most notably as the leading propagandist for the Republican side. Soon after the July military rebellion began, she took to the radio and became instantly famous for uttering "!No pasarán!" (They shall not pass!) This, along with other slogans she coined—such as, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees"—were so frequently repeated that they became rallying cries of Republican resistance against the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco. Whether she was addressing a mass public meeting or speaking on the radio, Ibárruri's deep, resonant voice and Iyrical phrases exerted a spellbinding effect on her audiences. One of her most memorable speeches was a tribute to the International Brigades on November 15, 1938. Ibárruri deeply moved the vast crowd in Barcelona who had come to bid farewell to the Americans and other departing foreign volunteers when she proclaimed them national heroes and examples "of democracy's solidarity and universality."

While Ibárruri's meteoric rise to fame during the war was based in part on her own abilities, it is also true that her reputation owed a great deal to the communists' successful efforts to present her as a symbol of the Republican cause. By the end of the war, the iconography that had grown up around Ibárruri had transformed her into a legendary figure. Her own custom of appearing in public dressed in black, unadorned by jewelry and with her hair modestly fastened in a bun, helped to reinforce the image of her as the archetypical self-abnegating revolutionary. It was a powerful image, one that would be associated with her for the rest of her life.

Though Ibárruri's politics rarely deviated from the official party line, during the civil war she went farther than most official communists in championing women's rights. She was almost alone in the party hierarchy in demanding that women must be treated as men's equals and that their economic and political emancipation should be a primary goal of the communist movement. Yet her main preoccupation was the war effort. Apart from her role as a propagandist, she worked in a variety of capacities in the rearguard, including as a coordinator of the evacuation of children from the war zone to safer havens elsewhere in Spain and abroad.

On the other hand, Ibárruri's religious-like devotion to Marxism and strong emotional attachment to the Soviet Union led her to support some causes that later became politically embarrassing for many communists. For example, during the civil war the communists ruthlessly persecuted their political rivals. Ibárruri herself vigorously supported the communists' campaign to liquidate the anti-Stalinist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). Years after the war there were still vestiges of her malice.

In the aftermath of the civil war, Ibárruri was among the tens of thousands of Republicans who fled Franco's Spain. Like many other communists, Ibárruri found refuge in the Soviet Union, where, apart from brief spells abroad, she lived for the next 36 years.

The year 1942 was a decisive one for Ibárruri. In the spring the PCE's secretary-general, José Díaz, died, and Ibárruri was asked to lead the party. Later that year her son Ruben, who along with his sister Amaya had been living in Russia since 1935, was killed in the battle of Stalingard. However, the combined weight of taking on new political responsibilities and coping with a personal tragedy did not break her spirit. She successfully managed to hold together a party that was frequently at the point of disintegration.

During the 1940s and early 1950s Ibárruri's strategy for the party was guided by the erroneous assumption that the demise of Franco's regime was imminent. Ibárruri thus lost standing within the party, particularly among the younger generation of reformist-minded communists who were now in the ascendant. She was asked to step down as secretary-general at the VI PCE Congress held in Prague in 1960. From then on, Ibárruri served as the president of the PCE, a post specially created to honor her many contributions to the party.

No longer active in daily party affairs, Ibárruri turned to other projects. She presided over a historical commission that wrote a multi-volume history of the Spanish Civil War from the communist perspective, and she also completed the first part of her autobiography. From time to time she also continued her propaganda work, making several public appearances at communist rallies (Montreuil, France, 1971, and Geneva, 1974) and broadcasting messages to Franco's Spain over Radio Pirenaica (Pyrenean Radio).

Return to Spain, 1977-1989

Following Franco's death in 1975, Ibárruri grew more and more eager to return home. Finally, in May 1977, one month after the PCE had been legalized, she arrived in Madrid. Ibárruri's triumphant homecoming was generally viewed as a sign that Spain's war wounds were finally healing. Largely for this reason, she was asked to stand for a parliamentary seat in the June 1977 national elections, the first free elections since 1936. Once again Ibárruri was elected as a deputy from Asturias, thus completing a political circle that had begun a half century earlier.

When she died in November 1989, many Spaniards believed that her death marked an end to an era, not least because it coincided with a time when much of the communist world which she had known and had fought for was in an advanced state of collapse.

Further Reading

Ibárruri's two autobiographical works, El único camino (translated into English in 1966 as They Shall Not Pass) and Memorias de Pasionaria (1984), are ultimately disappointing because they provide few insights into her adult personal life and offer an uncritical analysis of her political career. An anthology of her civil war speeches was published in 1968, En la lucha, and the publications of the historical project she directed, Guerra y Revolución en España, appeared between 1966 and 1977. For the most part, Ibárruri has been treated reverentially in biographical studies. See, for example, the article on her in Marie Marmo Mullaney's Revolutionary Women (1983). One exception is Teresa Pàmies' revealing Una española Ilamada Dolores Ibárruri (Mexico: 1965). □