The Spanish Civil War and the possibility of an uprising in the Rif: A first hand testimony on the negotiations between the Moroccan nationalist movement and the Spanish authorities

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The Spanish civil war included a colonial problem which could have been decisive for the revolution: that of the Rif territories. An uprising in the Rif would have squeezed Franco in a vice by removing his base of operations, thus favouring a victory of the republican forces. Negotiations had taken place between the Moroccan nationalist movement and the Spanish authorities, which had no outcome because of the attitude of the latter. To clarify this unknown or hidden page of the history of the Spanish civil war, we think it is useful and interesting to publish a transcript of the oral testimony of David Rousset, who was at the origin of these negotiations.

Miguel Romero

David Rousset’s testimony

I was at the time a member of the political bureau of section the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, the POI, the French section of the Fourth International. It was in this capacity that I found myself in Morocco in August 1936. My task was to organise a French section in Morocco and a Moroccan section of the Fourth International within the framework of the POI. I was for this reason in contact with the Moroccan Action Committee which represented the Moroccan nationalist movement and f was at the time still a unified movement.

The main personalities with whom I found myself in contact at the time were Al Fassi, who took part in all the discussions, always speaking in Arabic, and Mohamed Hassan Wazzani.

It was principally with Wazzani and Omar Abjelil that we had held these discussions and the decisions were taken in my absence in the plenary meetings.

Finding myself in Fez in August 1936, I had a new perspective on the Spanish civil war, which is to say, I realised that if there was a military uprising in the Spanish Rif, Franco would be caught in a cleft stick and that, moreover, a very difficult situation would be created in the ranks of Franco’s Moroccan troops. As a result, the object of my stay in Morocco was changed, in that I added this new goal to my primary initial objectives and negotiated with the Moroccan Action Committee around the possibility of a military intervention in Spain.

My principal difficulty was the lack of direct relations in Spain and notably with Barcelona. When I left Paris this problem was not posed, and we had therefore not discussed this in the Paris leadership. Jean Rous was, at that time, in Barcelona, and he was, as goes without saying, in close contact with the POUM. But I
should we wait for Jean Rous? Now at that time Robert Louzon, who was in contact with Jean Rous, was in Barcelona. The latter, moreover, was in contact with the CNT and the FAI.

Jean Rous had also thought about the question of Spanish Morocco while in Barcelona, but he had no contacts in Morocco, and it was at that point that he suggested coming to see me in Fez. So it was that one day in August I saw Robert Louzon arrive in Fez. I had put him in contact with the Moroccans and we had then gone through a long process of negotiation with the members of the Action Committee. Of course there were many problems: first of all political ones, but also of security, of caution, and notably the fact that the Moroccans obviously feared repression. They were already part legal and part illegal in the French Zone, in case an open military struggle broke out in the Rif.

Eventually these negotiations, which lasted almost the whole of August, lead to an initial agreement: the moroccans decided that they would separate diplomatically and actually, to a certain extent, the French Zone and the Spanish Zone of Morocco - that is that the military operation envisaged would not touch the French Zone. They would confine it to the Spanish Zone. They designated Wazzani and Abjelil to accompany me to Barcelona.

At that point Robert Lauzon left us and went back to France and I came to Spain with the two Moroccan leaders.

We arrived in Barcelona. My only contact in Barcelona was the PODM. Therefore with my two Moroccan leaders, via the intermediary of Jean Rous, we entered into contact with the leadership of the OUM who welcomed us. But in reality at that time the POUM in Barcelona was not the decisive element. The decisive element was the Central Committee of Militias which was dominated by the CNT and the FAI. Therefore, for the negotiations to succeed, they had to be held with the Central Committee of Militias. The latter, informed of our presence and our objeetives, came to visit the POUM. As always at that time operations were carried out in a singular way. One day an armed group arrived opposite the POUM building. There were rather curious exchanges between the POUMists, the CNT, and the FAI, and we went off, arms and all, with the CNT and the FAI. We had been received by the Central Committee of the Militias. I don’t remember the names; in any case they were leaders of the Central Committee of Militias.

They gave us a villa in Barcelona where, for the whole of September, the negotiations were carried out. I played the role of an adviser to the Moroccan delegation, that is of course I politically stayed in the background, behind the Moroccan delegation. That is, the POI played no role in this affair, it was a diplomatic negotiation between the authorised Moroccan representatives of the Action Committee and the authorised representatives of the Central Committee of Militias. But as an adviser, I took part in editing the fundamental elements which finally constituted the draft of a treaty of independence. The Moroccans posed the following principle: we are ready they said to start a military uprising in the Spanish Zone in the Rif, but we will only do it on one express condition: that you recognise our independence. Nevertheless the draft treaty followed the main lines of the Franco-Syrian treaty which had been signed in that period. Therefore we had a text, which whilst recognising independence, maintained close links between the former metropolis and the former colony. At the end of September, the terms had been definitively settled. The Central Committee of Militias approved the draft and we passed to the second phase.

The draft was submitted to all the delegations, without exception, of the Catalan parties. The Catalan parties, all without exception, approved the draft treaty of independence, even the Communist Party. And then we passed to a third phase: the Generalitat government had to approve the text of the treaty which would then become an official treaty between the Moroccan delegation and the Generalitat government. There was a ceremony with signatures, photos, films, etc.... So it was a quite an official event. Relations had already been created with the Moroccan tribes in the Rif. The question of money and arms had been settled, and practically (this is by no means an optimistic view; it is an absolutely realistic estimate) military operations could have begun quite rapidly. However, the Generalitat was not able to take decisions in the place of the Spanish Republic. Therefore we passed to a fourth stage: that is to say direct negotiation with the Madrid government. At this point I was removed from the negotiations. It was clear that the Spanish did not at all want to see a French Trotskyst too mixed up in things. They had not been able to avoid it in Barcelona where things were posed rather differently, but they didn’t want it to continue for too long. So, Wazzani and Abjelil went to Madrid alone, and I was not able to take part in the conversations. I therefore report what they told me.

They found themselves face to face with Largo Caballero who was, of course, subject to very strong pressure from Paris and London. Paris and London had been informed – how I don’t know! but it was obviously natural and inevitable – about this project and were absolutely hostile to it. For Paris, it was understandable since the Leon Blum government obviously wondered what would happen if this ever led to independence for the Rif. As a result, the Spanish government explained to the Arab delegation, to the Moroccan delegation, that they could not countersign the Barcelona treaty but that they were ready to give money and arms so that operations could begin. There we came up against the conduct of the Moroccan delegates. If I had been there, I must say that I would have advised them to accept the means to act, but that didn’t take place. They conducted themselves as a delegation representing a bourgeois movement, which did not want to undertake operations without the requisite political guarantees. They explained to the Spanish government that they were not agents of the Second Bureau (the Secret Service!) that they were ready and that is was possible to begin operations forthwith, but on one condition only: that of the Barcelona treaty, which, it must again be stressed, was a treaty of the Franco-SyTian type.

The break came at this point. They came back to Barcelona where they rejoined me and we went back to France. Shortly after their return to Paris they themselves met Leon Blum, with whom they had a rather rushed interview. I am ignorant of its content. Then they returned to the French Zone of Morocco.

That’s the story of this negotiation with the Central Committee of Militias.

David Rousset, Paris, 1939


* Published in annex to Miguel Romero, The Spanish Civil War in Euzkadi and Cataionia, Notebooks for Study and Research n°13, IIRE, Amsterdam: 1990.