Dolores Ibárruri (Pasionaria) : Biography

Dolores Ibárruri (Pasionaria)

Dolores Ibárruri, the eighth of eleven children, was born in Gallarta, Spain, on 9th December, 1895.

Ibárruri was born into a family of miners, Ibárruri experienced poverty as a child. Although an intelligent student, her family could not afford to pay for her to be trained as a teacher and instead became a seamstress.

In 1916 she married a miner and had six children but only two survived to adulthood. She later wrote that they had died because of her inability to provide adequate medical care and nourishment for them.

The family's financial situation deteriorated when her husband, an active trade unionist, was imprisoned for leading a strike. After reading the works of Karl Marx, Ibárruri joined the Communist Party (PCE). Ibárruri wrote articles for the miners' newspaper, El Minero Vizcaino, using the pseudonym Pasionaria (passion flower).

In 1920 Ibárruri was elected to the Provincial Committee of the Basque Communist Party. She soon became an important local political figure and in 1930 was elected to the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party. The following year she became editor of the left-wing newspaper, Mundo Obrero. Over the next few years she used her position to campaign for an improvement in women's conditions in Spain.

In September 1931 Ibárruri was arrested and charged with hiding a Communist comrade on the run from the Civil Guard. After being held in prison in Bilbao she was released in January 1932. She was then re-arrested and held in prison until January 1933.

Ibárruri was a member of the Spanish delegation of the Communist International which met in the Soviet Union in 1933. She also attended meetings of the Comintern where she supported what became known as the Popular Front policy.

Concerned by the emergence of fascism in Italy and Germany, Ibárruri helped organize the World Committee of Women Against War and Fascism and was a delegate at its first conference in France in August 1934.

In 1936 Ibárruri, now known by everybody as (La Pasionaria), was elected to the Cortes. During the first few months as a deputy she campaigned for legislation to improve working, housing and health conditions. She also sought land reform and rights for trade unionists. Ibárruri also successfully negotiated the release of several political prisoners in Spain.

During the Spanish Civil War Ibárruri was the chief propagandist for the Republicans. On 18th July, 1936, she ended a radio speech with the words: "The fascists shall not pass! No Pasaran". This phrase eventually became the battle cry for the Republican Army. In another speech she declared at a meeting for women: "It is better to be the widows of heroes than the wives of cowards!"

In September 1936 Ibárruri was sent to France and Belgium to rally support for the Republic. At one meeting she used the phrase "the Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees." She became a member of the committee designated to administer funds sent to Spain by the Comintern. Ibárruri was also involved in the destruction of the Worker's Party (POUM) and the dismissal of Francisco Largo Caballero and Juan Peiro from the government and supported the appointment of Juan Negrin as prime minister.

At the end of the war Ibárruri fled to the Soviet Union. Her only son, Ruben Ibárruri fought for the Red Army during the Second World War and was killed at Stalingrad on 3rd December 1942.

Ibárruri became Secretary General of the Communist Party (PCE) in May 1944. After the war she remained in Moscow and in 1964 was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and the following year the Order of Lenin. However, in 1968 she strongly attacked the Red Army invasion of the Czechoslovakia. The Russian leadership responded by sponsoring a breakaway Spanish Communist Party led by Enrique Lister.

After the death of Francisco Franco Ibárruri returned to Spain and in 1977 was elected deputy to the Cortes. Aged 93, Dolores Ibarruri died of pneumonia on 12th November, 1989.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Dolores Ibárruri wrote about family life in Spain in the early part of the 20th century in her autobiography.

A married woman was a domestic slave with no rights. In the home, the wife lost her personality; she gave herself, by dint of sheer necessity, to a life of sacrifice. She bore the brunt of work, of privations, slogging in every way to make the lives of her children, and of her husband, more pleasant, less harsh, less difficult, until she had annihilated herself, eventually turning herself into 'the old girl' who 'doesn't understand', who just gets in the way, who at best is a servant for the young ones, a nanny for the grandchildren . When my first daughter was born, I had lived in less than a year an experience so bitter that only the love of my little one kept me hanging on to life. And I was terrified not only by the present, hateful and unbearable as it was, but by the future which I could foresee as appallingly painful and inhuman.

The crude reality, the bare truth, hit me as it did every woman, with its unforgiving hands. A few short, fleeting days of illusion and afterwards. In my own experience, I learned the harsh truth of the popular saying 'Mother, what does it mean to be married? Daughter, it means to sew, to give birth and to cry'. To cry, to cry over our misfortunes, to cry over our powerlessness. To cry over our innocent children, to whom all we had to offer was our caresses soaked with tears. To cry over our pain-filled lives, without prospects, with no way out. Bitter tears, with a permanent curse in the heart and a blasphemy on the lips.

(2) Santiago Carrillo first met Dolores Ibárruri in April 1936.

I was moved. She was wearing rope-soled sandals, a huge shawl of pretty colours and, as always, dressed in black. Despite this simplicity, she seemed to me like a queen. There emanated from her a dignity, a majesty that is so often found in the women and men of our people. What seduced me, apart from her beauty, was her extraordinary charm when she laughed or spoke. In those days, in the Party, she was the great tribune who mobilized the multitudes, because she had a voice which grabbed you by the throat and extraordinary gifts as an orator. Above all, she had political instinct, an always correct instinct about how to position herself and play her cards in any situation. Certainly, where tactics were concerned, she could sometimes go too far, carried away by the passion and sincerity of her character. People came up to touch her as they would a saint.

(3) Mikhail Koltsov, diary entry (22nd August 1936)

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. She was particularly hard-line when it came to keeping promises. Dolores would arrive with her joyful spirit, with her happy, mischievous smile, well turned-out, elegant even, despite the simplicity of her dress, always black. She would sit down, put her hands on the table and slightly bending her large and beautiful head, listen in silence to the conversation. At other times, dead tired, struck with sorrow by something, depressed, her face grey like stone, looking old, she would slump heavily into a chair by the door, in a corner, and also say nothing. Then, suddenly, she would interrupt something someone was saying and then it would be pointless to try to stop her until, without pausing for breath, she had poured out her long tirade, which could be happy, funny, ingenious, and triumphant or gloomy, angry, almost plaintive, full of pained reproaches, of accusations, of protests and of threats against the obvious or hidden enemy of the day, against the bureaucrat or the saboteur who had prevented arms or food being sent to the militias at the front, or who had offended the workers or who was involved in intrigue from outside or inside the Party.

(4) Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

In the afternoon I attended, in Valencia, a mass meeting of the Popular Front (to which neither the anarchists nor POUM belong). There were about 50,000 enthusiastic people there. When La Pasionaria appeared on the platform enthusiasm reached its climax. She is the one communist leader who is known and loved by the masses, but in compensation there is no other personality in the Government camp loved and admired so much. And she deserves her fame. It is not that she is politically minded. On the contrary, what is touching about her is precisely her aloofness from the atmosphere of political intrigue: the simple, self-sacrificing faith which emanates from every word she speaks. And more touching even is her lack of conceit, and even her self-effacement. Dressed in simple black, cleanly and carefully but without the slightest attempt to make herself look pleasant, she speaks simply, directly, without rhetoric, without caring for theatrical effects, without bringing political sous-entendus into her speech, as did all the other speakers of the day. At the end of her speech came a pathetic moment. Her voice, tired from endless addresses to enormous meetings since the beginning of the civil war, failed her. And she sat down with a sad waving gesture of her hands, wanting to express: 'It's no use, I can't help it, I can't say any more; I am sorry.' There was not the slightest touch of ostentation in it, only regret at being unable to tell the meeting those things she had wanted to tell it. This gesture, in its profound simplicity, sincerity, and its convincing lack of any personal interest in success or failure as an orator, was more touching than her whole speech. This woman, looking fifty with her forty years, reflecting, in every word and every gesture, a profound motherliness (she has five children herself, and one of her daughters accompanied her to the meeting), has something of a medieval ascetic, of a religious personality about her. The masses worship her, not for her intellect, but as a sort of saint who is to lead them in the days of trial and temptation.

(5) Ilya Ehrenburg, letter sent to Marcel Rosenberg (30th September, 1936)

Except for La Pasionaria, the leadership of the Communist party consists of people who do not yet have authority on the national level. The party's real general secretary was an individual about whom I wrote you. Because he occupied just such a position not only within the Central Committee but also outside it, he besmirched the reputations of two institutions with all the people in the Popular Front. However we evaluate his role, in any case, the fact that he himself took the place of the leadership hindered the formation, from the leadership cadres, of independent political leaders.

The Communist party, which has attracted some of the more politically conscious elements of the working class, is, all the same, insufficiently organized and politically strong to take on even to the slightest degree the political work for the armed forces of the revolution. In Catalonia, about which I can judge only through partial evidence, the party is significantly weaker and undoubtedly suffers from the provocative activities of Trotskyists, who have won over several active leaders, like, for example, Maurin. Undoubtedly the party is still incapable of independently rousing the masses to some kind of large-scale action, or of concentrating all the strength of the leadership on such an action. What is more the example of Alcazar has been in this connection a notoriously negative test for the party. However, I will not give a more definite evaluation of the cadres and strength of the party, since this is the only organization with which I have had insufficient contact.

(6) Charlotte Haldane met Dolores Ibárruri in 1938.

Back in Barcelona, I was particularly anxious to meet La Pasionaria, the famous Spanish woman Communist leader. After I had been kept waiting for some days, an appointment was made for me through the British political commissar. I bought a huge bunch of scarlet gladioli - there was no food in the shops, but there were plenty of flowers - and presented myself at the headquarters of the Spanish Communist Party, a large building, as closely fortified and guarded as a fortress. There were armed men everywhere. In due course I was ushered into an important and well-furnished office. Dolores Ibarruri rose from her seat behind a big mahogany desk, and came forward to greet me. She had a matronly but magnificent figure, and bore herself with that unselfconscious nobility and dignity that is so characteristic of certain

Spaniards, irrespective of birth or class. Her features were regular, aquiline; her eyes dark and flashing. She had splendid teeth, and her smile was young and feminine. The voice that in public meetings could enthrall thousands was, in private conversation, low and melodious, though still decisive. She told me with gleeful amusement stories of the terrible tales that had been spread about her by her political enemies. To the fascists she was a dread, Medusa-like legend.

In fact, she was the daughter of an Asturian miner, and from childhood had been used to abject poverty and violent political strikes and battles to gain even the slightest amelioration of the living and working conditions of her people. She had been illiterate until her teens. Against tremendous odds, however, she had educated herself whilst earning her living. Her devotion to the Spanish working class was absolute and completely sincere. She became one of the greatest orators her country has produced, on a par with such oratorical stars as Jaures and Cachin in France. Her nickname was due to the fact that the passion which filled her whole personality and her voice when she defended her people or attacked their enemies was a mystical one, and the passion with which she preached her cause was akin to religious fervour. The hatred which she was certainly capable of feeling as well as inspiring was due to an unusual sensibility, an outraged compassion for her fellow men and women, the inversion of the immense love and loyalty by which she was equally inspired.

(7) Dolores Ibárruri, speech in France on 8th September 1938.

The Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees. 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.

(8) Dolores Ibárruri, speech in Barcelona on 29th October 1938.

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 you will find a homeland.

(9) Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, wrote about meeting Dolores Ibárruri in 1937 in her autobiography, Working Partnership (1958)

The Prime Minister, Senor Caballero, found time to see us, and in reply to a question I put to him, assured me that, in the event of a Republican victory, there would be full religious liberty. But by far the most interesting personality I met was the woman member of the Cortes, Dolores Ibarruri, commonly known as La Pasionaria. I had been reluctant to see her, as her nickname had suggested to me a rather over-emotional young person, but on Ellen Wilkinson's pressure I agreed to meet her.

I have never ceased to be glad that I did so, for the only person with whom I felt La Pasionaria could be compared was the woman I had always regarded as the greatest actress I had seen, Eleonora Duse. She had Duse's wonderful grace and voice, but she was much more beautiful, with rich colouring, large dark eyes, and black wavy hair. She swept into the room like a queen, yet she was a miner's daughter married to a miner - a woman who had had the sorrow of losing six out of eight children. I could understand nothing that she said, and she talked with great rapidity, but to look and to listen was pleasure enough for me.

(10) Vincent Sheean, met Dolores Ibárruri in May 1938. He wrote about her in his book Not Peace But a Sword (1939)

I saw a deep-bosomed Spanish woman of about forty or a little more, with a hearty laugh and a firm hand. There was a splendid earthy quality about her laugh, but her face was very sad in repose. The voice was not what is usually called 'musical' - that is, it had no melodious tones and little sweetness. It was a little higher and lower than the average, had a greater range, but that was all. Where it became quite unlike any other voice I have ever heard was in the effect of passionate sincerity. This expressive gift abides in Dolores' voice throughout, in her slightest remark as in the great sweeping statements, with the result that it is impossible to disbelieve anything she says while she is actually saying it.

Sometimes she gave it to them so straight and hard that you could hear the gasp of the whole audience. Her purpose was, of course, to make such failures and mistakes rarer in the future. She criticized the government not at all, but her own and the other revolutionary parties came in for some terrific lashings. And then, having frightened the audience into breathlessness by her picture of disaster, she set out to prove that victory was possible, and on what conditions. To an ordinary American journalist in the front row of the hall it seemed that she was asking these people to stop being Communists altogether, at least until the war was won. 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.

(11) Fred Copeman met Dolores Ibárruri in the Soviet Union in 1939. He wrote about her in his book Reason in Revolt (1948)

My meeting with Pasionaria hurt me deep down and I did not like it. I expected to find her on the stage at the Bolshoi Theatre, holding the hand of Stalin, and being introduced as one of the greatest living Communists. I found her alone in a little room closely guarded by units of the Red Army. If any living creature had the right to everything we had, to me it was Pasionaria. She had never given up the struggle for the Spanish people. She took her chances with the men in the line. She was the mother of a family which had made great sacrifices, and one of her sons had given his life. She was a worker born of the working classes, and her loyalty and integrity was beyond doubt, yet at this moment, she was far from

happy. Spain to the Soviet Union had become an embarrassment. The Brigade was beginning to pass into history. Future Soviet policy would wish to forget it. Her new-found friends had no time for Pasionaria. The Soviet-Nazi Pact had already become an immediate possibility. This woman, with her deep convictions and loyalty to principles, was likely to become a political problem.

(12) Edward Heath, The Course of My Life (1988)

Everyone we met seemed to be inspired by Dolores Ibarruri - La Pasionaria - the renowned and courageous communist whose emotional oratory did so much to maintain the morale of those on the Republican side. She was a miner's daughter, born in 1895, and did everything during the Civil War from running a creche for the children of fighters to manning machine-gun posts. Although she was a devout Marxist, La Pasionaria reached across political boundaries by turning the Civil War into a crusade for the independence of her country. It was moving after Franco's death, over forty years later, to see this aged but still distinguished and defiant lady return to a free democratic Spain under the renewed monarchy.