A Case of Red Terror in Spain: The Cárcel Modelo Massacre

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 October 2021


A fire was started at the Cárcel Modelo (Model Jail) in Madrid on 22 August 1936 by “common” criminals displeased with the pace of releases promised by the Republican government. The Republicans convinced themselves that the Carcel Modelo fire was a “fascist” uprising, brought about by conspiracy with General Franco’s forces outside the prison walls, who had initiated their rebellion a month earlier. The fire was used as a pretext by the Republicans to carry out a massacre of prisoners that lasted into the early hours of 23 August, in scenes reminiscent of the French Revolution’s September 1792 atrocities that signalled the onset of the Terror. There were Rightist among the victims and some military men; there were also many liberals and non-Soviet Leftists.


Julius Ruiz, in his 2014 book, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, gives a detailed account of the events at Carcel Modelo.[1]

After 18 July, the Republican government had issued an amnesty that released the Communists involved in the October 1934 revolt and was supposed to lead to the release of non-political criminals on a case-by-case basis, but kept Carcel Modelo stocked with other Leftists, particularly anarcho-syndicalists and their labour union confederation, the National Committee of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT).[2] In early August, the protests about the pace of release for the “common” criminals led to the freeing of Felipe Sandoval, an anarchist who helped lead the killer squads on 22-23 August and killed himself shortly after the war in July 1939, having been captured and confessed to a series of murders, and Luis Bonilla Echevarria, a lawyer in prison for an “inappropriate relationship” with a 16-year-old child. Echevarria had been a member of CNT, though left, and now acted as “an unofficial delegate to the director of prisons”.[3]

There was a growing paranoia among the Republicans about fascist conspiracies at the prison. After a search of cells on 14 August 1936, it was claimed in the socialist newspaper Claridad “that prisoners were formulating their plots inside the jail by means of messages placed in potatoes and delivered by friendly prison staff.” One prison guard, Custodio Silva, who was watching General Joaquin Fanjul, was fired, as were several others, for alleged complicity in these conspiracies. Cells were inspected again on 21 August and 22 August; the most notable finding was prisoner valuables, all confiscated by the Republicans. Gregorio Gallego, the anarchist youth leader, was one of the inspectors on 22 August, and in his memoir records the reality: “[The Republican guards found] some hundreds of different sized balls made of silver foil from chocolate bar wrappings, belts, lashes, spoons, and sharpened iron objects … In sum, a museum of defensive artesanal objects, but no automatic firearm”. As subsequent events showed, this defensive posture was not unreasonable. In the context of the approaching Army of Africa, however, reason had quit the Republican calculations. They Republicans had arranged for reliable Leftists to be on duty as guards on 22 August. A protest was written about this by Director General of Prisons, Pedro Villar Gómez, to the Justice Minister, Manuel Blasco Garzón, a former member of the old liberal Reformist Republican Party (PRR), warning that “there are well-founded fears that in these prisons [the Carcel Modelo and San Anton] lamentable and serious events will take place if this inference and outrages are not ended forthwith”. It was already too late.[4]


The exact course of events on 22 August is confusing and contested. There are accusations Sandoval, the effective commander at the prison, colluded in starting the fire so “the people” could be pacified by the escape of “common” criminals; he denied this when interrogated after the Communist defeat, and there is every reason to think he was telling the truth. Francisco Sánchez Bote, a prison officer on the day and later a prison guard at Porlier under the Franco government, said that Sandoval had been stern in waiting for a “release order” for the common prisoners, and the fire had been started in the bakery as a protest by these prisoners while the guards were searching the cells of the political prisoners and Sandoval was engaged in a “heated discussion” with José María Albinana, the leader of the Spanish Nationalist Party (PNE), a small Catholic-monarchist outfit. The prisoners with military backgrounds, held on the first landing, were immediately gathered in the courtyard, “guarded” by Sandoval’s militiamen. The socialist La Motorizada militia, under the command of Enrique Puente, had arrived from their barracks in the Medinaceli Palace and was able to prevent the crowd outside demanding the common criminals’ release from breaking into Carcel Modelo; that was about the extent of the order the militias maintained. The prison guards, meanwhile, were helping about 1,000 common criminals escape. Some political prisoners made it out, too, notably Leocadio Moreno Páez, who had been head of the Falangist student union in Murcia University when the Francoist uprising began. Paez was, in other words, someone on the Nationalist side who could legitimately be called fascist, yet he managed to convince the prison authorities to release him on 23 August.[5]

At around 17:00 on 22 August, amid general pandemonium in the prison, someone fired an accidental shot in the courtyard, and the Republican militiamen began firing on the unarmed military prisoners in a barrage that lasted for at least five minutes. When the shooting stopped, it transpired the Republicans had murdered three people—Manuel Chacel y del Moral, Alfonso Espinosa Ferrandiz, and Ignacio Jiménez Martínez de Velasco—and wounded another eleven. Upon being brought news of events at Carcel Modelo, Prime Minister José Giral capitulated, completely and immediately; not wanting to confront “the people”, by 19:00 an order was given for the release of all the common prisoners.[6]

In the evening of 22 August, the militias—unclear exactly which, though subsequent historiography tended to blame the anarcho-syndicalists—decided on a massacre, to be conducted in the name of the “Carcel Modelo committee” and carried out by means of “revolutionary tribunals” (show trials). The murders targeted broadly four categories of prisoners: (1) Military officials, some of whom had sympathised with the Nationalists or (tried to) engage in mutinous activity at the outbreak of the war; (2) Falangists, some of whom were connected to violent activity; (3) Right-wing politicians who had done nothing but speak against the Popular Front government, and who varied considerably within themselves from reactionary Catholic forces to monarchists and more centrist conservatives; and (4) Left-wing and liberal politicians.

The known victims include:[7]

Military Officials

  • General Rafael Villegas: the would-be leader of the rebellion in Madrid, who had been arrested within days of the uprising.
  • General Fernando Osvaldo Capaz: one of the military men taken into the courtyard during the melee, the military commander in Ceuta before his arrest.
  • Lieutenant José Ignacio Fanjul: “a medic and son of the general who commanded the rebels in the Montaña barracks”.


  • Julio Ruiz de Alda: one of the founders of the Falange, accused by the president of the Supreme Court Mariano Gomez of being the instigator of an escape plot at Carcel Modelo.
  • Fernando Primo de Rivera: brother of the Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. (José Antonio, arrested in March 1936, was murdered on 20 November 1936 as part of the more orderly and ostensibly legal “people’s tribunals” set up after the Carcel Modelo disaster.)
  • Enrique Matorras Páez: a Falangist who had once been the Communist Youth secretary.
  • Nicasio Ribagorda Pérez: another Falangist with a Communist background; he had been “wounded in a shootout with police in Madrid in August 1931”.

Right-wing Politicians

  • José Maria Albinana: physician and leader of the Catholic-monarchist PNE, who had been arguing with Sandoval when the fire began.
  • Tomás Salort y de Olives: a deputy for the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights (CEDA), which came together in 1933 as an umbrella for the Catholic and conservative forces being persecuted by the aggressive secularism and heavy-handed repression that was already such a feature of the Second Republic. As Salort’s participation in the elections even under these conditions shows, he was an “accidentalist”, i.e. a non-revolutionary opponent of the Republican government, believing the problem was not the system but the conduct of the system’s current managers. The “accidentalist” opposition was peaceful and legalistic in nature.[8]
  • Rafael Esparza García: another CEDA deputy and “accidentalist”.
  • Javier Jimenez de la Puente: monarchist.
  • Conde de Santa Engracia: monarchist

Left-wing and Liberal Politicians

  • José Martínez de Velasco: the leader of the Spanish Agrarian Party (PAE), a centrist republican party, and an “accidentalist”.
  • Manuel Rico Avello: “interior minister under Radical prime minister Diego Martínez Barrio in November 1933. Rico was particularly hated for organising the cleanest election in the Second Republic’s short history that saw the decisive defeat of the Left.”
  • Melquíades Álvarez: an old man (born in 1864), Alvarez had created and led the liberal Reformist Party (PRR), alongside Gumersindo de Azcárate and José Ortega y Gasset, in 1912. The PRR had been rather successful—Alvarez was the President of the Congress of Deputies (Speaker of Parliament) from 1922 to 1923—but the PRR was dissolved before the creation of the Second Republic in 1931. Alvarez had joined with CEDA in 1933 to try to put some restraints on the already hideously repressive Republic—an electorally successful strategy, somewhat nullified by the October 1934 Communist revolt and overturned when that cadre of seditionists took over the government in February 1936.
  • Ramón Álvarez Valdés y Castañón: another liberal from the PRR; briefly Justice Minister between December 1933 and April 1934.
  • Elviro Ordiales Oroz: “the Radical Party’s director general of prisons in 1934”.

In all, at least twenty-four prisoners were slaughtered in the basement of Carcel Modelo overnight 22-23 August 1936.[9]


There were some murmurs of disapproval even in the Leftist press about what the Republican authorities had done at Carcel Modelo, but much of it was of a prudential nature—there was a fear Britain would reverse its stated non-intervention policy—and over time this faded as the myth-narrative of a thwarted fascist rebellion bedded down.[10] The main outcome was that the Republican government institutionalised the revolutionary tribunals, removing any veneer of deniability that portrayed the Terror as popular spasms of violence beyond state control, and moved to systematically liquidate its opponents through a “judicial” process under a decree issued on 25 August.[11] The peak of this was the Republic’s Paracuellos massacres in November-December 1936, the murder of 5,000 civilian political opponents, priests, some Nationalist soldiers, journalists, artists, intellectuals, and even 276 children held at the prisons in Madrid, the largest individual atrocity of the whole war.

Note: the Special Tribunals to conduct show trials of political opponents under the centralised authority of the Provincial Committee of Public Investigation (CPIP), which now oversaw the local Popular Front groups as they dispensed “justice”, had already been formed by late August 1936, and the checas, the Republican secret police explicitly modelled on the Soviet version (the Cheka), had been formed even earlier, funded with the looted property of “class enemies” and the Roman Catholic churches.[12] As Ruiz notes, it is false to try to distinguish between “Soviet-style checas on the one hand or the nefarious activities of ‘uncontrollables’ on the other. The terror in Madrid was not extraneous to the [Republic’s] war effort …; on the contrary, it was integral to it”.[13] The changes that were about to take place in the government only intensified what was already there; it was not a “hijacking” or distortion of the Republic.

The Nationalists took Talavera de la Reina on 3 September,[14] bringing the Army of Africa within seventy-five miles of Madrid, and the next day any shreds of doubt about the nature of the Republican government were removed when Giral was replaced by “Spain’s Lenin”, Francisco Largo Caballero. One of Largo’s first acts was to implement the earlier proposal to transfer three-quarters of Spain’s gold reserves to the Soviet Union. Stalin—busy stage-managing the first Moscow Trial of Yezhovshchina—had withheld serious assistance from the Republicans until the gold was handed over. Largo organised the gold transfer in collaboration with his new Finance Minister, Juan Negrin, a functional NKVD agent and Largo’s successor as Prime Minister (May 1937–March 1939).

By coincidence—or not—it was on the same day that Largo took office that the Soviet Politburo decided on what would become Operation X, a massive intervention in Spain spearheaded by the NKVD, coordinated by Alexander Orlov,[15] whose instructions were for a two-front war, against the Nationalists and dissident Leftists, Trotskyists above all.[16] With the economy of the Republican areas and thus their access to weapons now in the hands of the Soviet Union, and Orlov arriving to take control of their security apparatus, whatever independence the Republican government could claim from Stalin was now at an end.

The Soviets initiated a “mass solidarity campaign” in Europe, portraying the Spanish Republic as a democratic entity besieged by fascists,[17] and was delighted by the mass flow of volunteers to the NKVD-controlled International Brigades—about 40,000 in all. The identity papers from the volunteers were a godsend to Soviet intelligence in terms of creating “legends” for spies, especially Illegals, for decades afterwards, and the volunteers themselves, of course, were an “endless source of recruits”, working on behalf of the Soviets once they returned to their home countries.[18]

The number of NKVD officers in Spain was reasonably small, but they were given broad powers by the Centre and their infiltration of the Republic’s security institutions, such as they were, was very extensive, to the point that even some Republican leaders began looking for ways to lessen it.[19] Orlov’s colonisation mission in Spain was so pervasive that it irked even the Red Army military advisers, whose complaints can only have convinced Stalin the NKVD was doing its job well: he distrusted the military—he was in the midst of purging it—and thought in Spain it was open to Trotskyist contagion.[20]

Having spent four months establishing the foundations of an agent network and creating camps to train Spanish and international Communists in terrorist tactics, Orlov was promoted to rezident in February 1937, and told to put these assets to work as the policy on “Trotskyists” (loosely defined as non-Soviet-loyal Leftists) was switched from observation and infiltration to extermination. Orlov was assisted in this by Yakov Serebryansky, the France-based NKVD operative leading the dual campaign against the exiled “White Guards” and the Parisian Trotskyists. One of Orlov’s underlings, Stanislav Vaupshasov, a convicted murderer and probably the most decorated Soviet intelligence officer ever, constructed a crematorium in Spain so the bodies of Stalin’s enemies could be disposed of without trace. The “May Days” events in Barcelona operationally decommissioned POUM, the most annoying of the Trotskysante militias to the Centre—and triggered the replacement of Largo with the even more Soviet-loyal Negrin into the bargain. Just after that, one of Orlov’s roving NKVD death squads eliminated POUM leader Andreu Nin.[21]

Stalin’s belief in Spain was that Trotskyism was the primary enemy—not Franco, who could not be defeated if this “internal enemy” was not rooted out—and this obsession lasted until 1941, when Stalin was still focused on largely imaginary Trotskyist enemies as the Nazi invasion loomed.[22] After the war, Stalin turned on the equally imaginary “Zionist” enemies of the Soviet regime.[23]

Orlov defected in July 1938 and was replaced as station chief in Spain by his deputy, Leonid Eitingon (Nahum Eitingon), the recruiter of the NKVD agent, the Spanish Communist Ramón Mercader, who ultimately rid Stalin of his great nemesis, Trotsky. Soviet operations in Spain were not seriously disrupted by Orlov’s departure, and Moscow’s program ran right down to the end: as the Nationalists arrived at the gates of Madrid in March 1939, the Left was fighting itself in search of heretics.[24]

The Republican Red Terror had killed at least 50,000 people by this time,[25] among them 7,000 Catholic clergy—nuns, priests, and thirteen bishops. 20,000 churches were destroyed by the Reds, many before the outbreak of war. This led to the Roman Church blessing General Franco’s uprising as a Crusade,[26] which, alongside the Soviet-instigated internecine fighting on the Republican side, did nothing to help their cause in a solidly Catholic country.


Post has been updated

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[1] Julius Ruiz (2014), The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 161-69.

[2] The CNT was deeply linked to another Spanish group of a similar character, Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), and an international version of the confederation, the International Workers’ Association (AIT), so much so that it was often called the CNT-FAI or CNT-AIT.

[3] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, p. 161.

[4] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 161-63.

[5] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 163-66.

[6] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 163-66.

[7] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 166-67.

[8] The opposite of the “accidentalists” was the “catastrophists”, who thought the entire Republican system had to go.

[9] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, p. 167.

[10] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 167-69.

[11] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, pp. 175-76.

[12] The checa was officially refashioned as the Police Council (Consejo de Policia) in November 1936, answering directly to Largo. Boris Volodarsky (2015), Stalin’s Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov, p. 158-59.

[13] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, p. 8.

[14] Talavera de la Reina fell to a two-pronged attack, led on the one side by General Juan Yague and on the other side by Colonel Carlos Asensio Cabanillas and Major Antonio Castejon Espinosa.

[15] Born Leiba Lazarevich Feldbin, Orlov operated under the name “Lev Lazarevich Nikolsky” and his codename was SCHWED or SWEDE.

[16] Volodarsky, Stalin’s Agent, p. 153.

[17] Volodarsky, Stalin’s Agent, p. 157.

[18] Volodarsky, Stalin’s Agent, p. 155.

[19] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, p. 176.

[20] Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (1999), The Sword and The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, pp. 73-4.

[21] Mitrokhin and Andrew, The Sword and The Shield, pp. 73-6.

[22] Volodarsky, Stalin’s Agent, p. 208. Christopher Andrew (2018), The Secret World, p. 743.

[23] Andrew, The Secret World, p. 680.

[24] George Hills (1967), Franco: The Man and His Nation, p. 324.

[25] Ruiz, The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War, p. 1.

[26] The Joint Letter of the Spanish Bishops in the summer of 1937 argued that the issue for the Roman Church was not so much whether it supported the Nationalists, per se, “but rather … the Church [is] in danger of perishing totally at the hands of Communism” and there is only one force available behind which the Church can shelter. The Soviets have “financed [the Republic] with exorbitant amounts of money”, the Letter went on, “aimed really, whilst preserving the appearance of the Popular Front Government, at implanting the Communist regime.” The Letter referred to this last Crusade as an “armed plebiscite”, an echo of the “armed pilgrimage” that was the description of the first, eight and more centuries earlier. Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) had been more cautious about embracing the Nationalists, but two weeks after the fall of Madrid gave a radio address expressing “fatherly congratulations for the gift of peace and of victory, with which God has deemed worthy to crown the Christian heroism of your faith … We bestow upon you, Our dear children of Catholic Spain, upon the Chief of State [Franco] and his illustrious Government, … Our Apostolic Blessing.”

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