The SIM

During the autumn of 1937, anarchist power continued to decline, the Catalan nationalists were isolated, and discord generally increased in the Republican zone. The repression of dissenters was now far greater than it had been in the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. The prime minister's pretend ignorance of communist activities was unconvincing, but most of the Republic's supporters abroad who had defended the Republic on the grounds of liberty and democracy made no protest.

During this time the Republican security services were rationalised into the SIM, the Servicio de Investigacion Militar. The social democrat Prieto was the architect of this restructuring but the communists promptly seized it for its own use. The new department was out of its creators hands the day it opened since the communists had infiltrated the security services in the autumn of 1936.

SIM officers included both unquestioningly loyal Party members and the ambitious. Its informers were everywhere - there were said to be 6000 in Madrid alone. The most feared section was the 13th Section, responsible for interrogation. When its infamous reputation became well known, it simply changed its name. The government insisted it had been disbanded, but in fact there was an increase in the number of those who had 'crossed over to the enemy' - a euphemism for death under torture.

The SIMs interrogation methods evolced beyond beatings with rubber piping, hot and cold water treatment, splinters under the nails and mock executions as had been used in the early days. Russian advice made the process more scientific. Strange metallic sounds, coloured lights and sloping floors were used as disorientation and sensory deprivation techniques. If these failed, or the interrogators were in a hurry, there was always the 'electric chair' and the 'noise box', but these risked sending prisoners mad too quickly.

There are no reliable estimates of the total number of SIM prisoners. Any critic of Russian military incompetence was likely to find himself subject to their tender ministrations. The term 'fifth columnist' was extended to include any who opposed the communist line. The prime minister, Negrin, discounted critical accounts of SIM activity as enemy propaganda. The communists had been amazingly successful at creating a degree of control over the government while retaining only a token presence in the Cabinet. Nevertheless, a backlash against communist power was starting to develop.

Communist preferment at the front had reached such levels that non communists were horrified. Prieto was shaken when he heard that non communist wounded were refused medical aid. Commissars given recruitment targets went to any measure to achieve them, literally shanghaiing foreign visitors into the International Brigades . Socialists in communist units who failed to join the Party were frequently shot on false charges. After Brunete 250 men of El Campesino's division sought protection from the regular 14 Divion because of the treatment they had suffered for not becoming communists.

Comintern advisers were becoming disturbed, as conditions in the Brigades were becoming so bad that it was affecting recruitment. Fresh volunteers were shocked at the cynicism of the veterans, who laughed at the idealism of the newcomers while remembering their own with bitterness. The greatest jolt to the Brigaders attitude was the treatment of the POUM. The official story was so dishonest that only those terrified of the truth could believe it. Most Brigaders resented the insult to their intelligence, but held their tongues when in Spain for fear of the SIM. When they did reach home most kept quiet rather than undermine the Republican cause as a whole. Those, like Orwell, who did speak out found the doors of left wing publishers closed to them as the Comintern stepped up its pressure.

Nevertheless, however authoritarian Negrin's government became, it was not totalitarian. The communists did not have complete control of the media, and so word leaked out. The 'disciplined machine' the communists talked about in 1936 had finally taken over, but Republican morale had taken a terrible blow in the process. For many, there seemed to be few ideals left to defend. The anarchist theorist Aban de Santillan remarked, "Whether Negrin won with communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans, the results would be the same for us."

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