Anatomy of a Speech: ¡No Pasarán! – Dolores Ibárruri

Dolores Ibárruri in 1936 – photo by Mikhail Koltsov (via WikiCommons)

Something a bit different for this post. Last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, Heather Heyer died peacefully protesting against the kind of hateful and violent nationalism that should have long ago been consigned to history. Although this speech is from a very different time and context, I thought that highlighting the powerful words of another woman from another generation would be some small tribute to those who still stand up for democracy, freedom and human dignity. In recent days, ‘No Pasarán’ has been appearing on Twitter in response to the Barcelona terrorist attack. As this speech is very short – a battle cry, really – the analysis is also quite short. But it’s a fascinating speech from a fascinating woman who deserves to be more well known.

La Pasionaria

Dolores Ibárruri was a Spanish communist politician and republican heroine of the Spanish Civil War. She was a force of nature: she had a fierce intellect and was considered a brilliant speaker. Her struggle against both the misogyny and poverty she grew up in, her willingness to speak up for the rights of women and workers, and her fearless protests against Franco and fascism, make her a heroine for all women wanting to find their own voice in the world.

Ibárruri was born in 1895 into family of miners in the Basque region of Spain, the eighth of eleven children. Despite showing a strong desire to learn – she later said she read anything she could lay her hands on – she left school at fifteen and worked as a seamstress, and later as a maid. At the age of twenty, she married Julián Ruiz, a miner and communist. In 1917, she became a member of Spanish Social Workers’ Party, and in 1921 a member of the Communist Party. Using the pseudonym La Pasionaria, she began writing articles for a miners’ newspaper and became active in the workers’ movement. She later separated from her husband and moved to Madrid. In 1930, she was voted onto the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party and was responsible for the party’s Women’s’ Commission. In the early 1930s, she became renowned for her brilliant and rousing speeches. As a member of the Cortes Generales (‘General Courts’ – the Spanish Parliament), she fought for women’s rights, especially in the areas of work and health.

The Speech

This speech was broadcast on Radio Madrid on 19th July 1939, as part of wider efforts to rally the citizens of Madrid against Franco’s nationalists, who were preparing to launch a military offensive on the city. The Communist Party knew that Ibárruri was a popular and persuasive figure. Her fiery and naturalistic style of delivery was perfectly suited to the moment. The battle cry, ‘¡No Pasarán!’ (‘They shall not pass’) quickly became a slogan for all those fighting against Franco’s fascist troops and is still used by activists in other contexts today. Ibárruri used it as the title for her autobiography, published in 1966. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot, even wore the slogan on a t-shirt during her trial in Russia.

At first, the speech gained little attention in the foreign press, despite being very popular in Spain itself. Slowly, however, foreign journalists started taking notice of Ibárruri and her speeches. In August 1936, the French writer Élie Faure, in an article for Regards magazine, describes watching Ibárruri giving a speech, saying he’d ‘never seen or heard anything like it’. Though she came from a family of miners, she was ‘aristocratic through and through’.

The full text of the speech in Spanish is available here. The English translation I have used is available here. A German translation is available here.

A Battle Cry to an Invisible Audience

It goes without saying that giving a speech on the radio is completely different to giving a speech in front of an audience. The audience will probably be larger, but they will either be alone or in small groups. And the point of this speech was to rally all the citizens of Madrid, not just left-wing fighters. How to find a battle cry for such an (invisible) audience? Ibárruri fosters a sense of kinship amongst her audience in three ways. Firstly, she binds all the differing political and social groups together, as Spanish citizens ‘loyal to the Republic’. For Spain’s future, they must all struggle together. Their identity as Spaniards, as ‘workers and farmers’, indeed ‘the people’, is more important than their individual identities. She urges them all to ‘stay true to the republican state and fight side by side with the workers, with the forces of the Popular Front, with your parents, your siblings and comrades’, here linking the kinship of a family with the kinship of a nation.’ Secondly, she turns the focus of the struggle onto those they are fighting against. They are ‘enemies of the republic’ and therefore enemies of all Spaniards. This creates a sense of kinship by setting all those ‘loyal’ to Spain, regardless of background, against those who wish to destroy it. And thirdly, she creates a sense of kinship amongst her audience by making them Spain itself. ‘All of Spain presents itself for battle’ she says. Unless the citizens act together, there will be no Spain, because Spain is its citizens.

The Historical Moment

Ibárruri also places her speech and Spain’s struggle in the historical moment. ‘The people,’ she says, ‘understand the graveness of this moment’. The very future of Spain demands that citizens fight the nationalist forces. Notice that she does not urge people to understand the importance of the moment. They already understand how critical this struggle is: the ‘workers and farmers from all Spanish provinces are joining in the struggle’. Her speech contributes to a wider momentum. She refers twice to the violence in Asturias in 1934, when left-wing miners were attacked by troops from the local ruling right-wing party. First, she urges the women of Spain to ‘recall the heroism of the women of Asturias of 1934 and struggle alongside the men to defend the lives and freedom of your sons, overshadowed by the fascist menace’. Secondly, the nationalists are ‘the hangmen of October’. She persuades her audience that their actions are necessary by reminding them of the violence of their enemy. They are ‘the fascist foe, who drag through the mud the very same honourable military tradition that they have boasted to possess so many times’. They are not worthy of a place in Spain’s future. This local reference not only places this struggle in its political context, but also highlights Ibárruri’s own mining background. By making her speech and its message part of Spain’s historical narrative, she makes it part of history: a moment when which the Spanish people must stand up and play their part.

¡No Pasarán!

This battle cry was originally used at the Battle of Verdun (1916) by the French military. So, by using these specific words, Ibárruri is (perhaps unintentionally) placing the struggle against Franco’s nationalists in the wider European historical and geographical narrative. But there’s another and more important reason Ibárruri used this phrase. It had recently appeared on right-wing posters in Spain. By using the phrase, Ibárruri turns her enemies’ own words against them.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 09.21.18

Contemporary Spanish right-wing poster (from ‘Große Reden – No Pasarán’ documentary)

Ibárruri uses the phrase three times in this short speech.


Under the battle cry ‘Fascism shall not pass; the hangmen of October shall not pass!’ workers and farmers from all Spanish provinces are joining in the struggle against the enemies of the Republic that have arisen in arms.

Ibárruri leaves her audience in no doubt what they ‘shall not pass’ means: it is a ‘battle cry’ for the violent ‘struggle’ against both the nationalist forces and the very idea of fascism itself. Note how she refers to ‘workers and farmers’, specific groups of people, rather than just an abstract image of Spanish citizens. She calls on her audience to participate actively in the struggle, not to simply support those who are fighting.


The whole country cringes in indignation at these heartless barbarians that would hurl our democratic Spain back down into an abyss of terror and death. However, THEY SHALL NOT PASS! For all of Spain presents itself for battle. 

Now ‘the whole country’, ‘all of Spain’ will not let the ‘heartless barbarians’ pass. Here Ibárruri reiterates the historical importance of this moment – the fascists who would ‘hurl our democratic Spain back down into an abyss of terror and death’. Note how she says ‘our Spain’. The nationalists are ‘barbarians’, not worthy of being called Spanish. As barbarians, they are enemies of civilization itself. And after creating an image of Spain made up of her citizens, the violent language of hurling the country ‘back down into an abyss’, the very earth – ‘mud’ – itself, serves to embody the threat, both to the lives of Spanish citizens and to Spain itself.


Long live the Popular Front! Long live the union of all anti-fascists! Long live the Republic of the people! The Fascists shall not pass! THEY SHALL NOT PASS!

She ends with a rhetorical three-part list, each time increasing the size of the group, building up from small specific group ‘the Popular Front’, to ‘all anti-fascists’, to the ‘Republic of the people’. This ending mirrors the beginning of her speech and its call for all Spaniards to unite in the struggle. The Spanish people will stand shoulder to shoulder and the fascists ‘shall not pass’.


Despite the mobilisation of Madrid’s citizens, Franco’s nationalists besieged the city in October 1936, whicheventually fell on 28th March 1939. Francoist propaganda made fun of Ibárruri’s famous battle cry, writing songs about how ‘No Pasarán’ was no longer true. But these songs have not survived the test of history. What have survived are Ibárruri’s words: a battle cry for freedom, for democracy and for the defeat of fascism.

Ibárruri left Spain in 1939, eventually gaining asylum in the USSR. She remained active in left-wing politics, working for the Spanish Communist Party in exile and writing article and books. She returned to Spain in 1977 at the age of 80 and became active in Spanish politics until her death in 1989.

Dolores Ibárruri in 1978 (via WikiCommons)

She was, at times, a divisive figure. She was a lifelong committed Stalinist and often critical of other left-wing organisations. But today she is almost exclusively remembered as a symbol for the resistance to Franco’s fascism. She was, unmistakably, a remarkable woman who endured great personal loss. Four of her six children died young, apparently due to the family’s extreme poverty; her surviving son died during the Second World War. She fought for women’s rights in both the home and at work. She was a fearless and heartfelt public speaker, as well as a fiercely intelligent politician, at a time when women were almost universally barred from politics. She fought for freedom and democracy, for the rights of all citizens and for a better life. If she were alive today, she would surely be standing shoulder to shoulder with those still fighting (and dying) for human freedom and dignity.



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