I’ve been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War and revolution for years. Aside from the ideological context to the conflict it is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history. Between 1936 -1939 anarchist, socialist and republicans in Spain supported by thousands of international volunteers tried but ultimately failed to stop a fascist insurrection establishing the forty year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Noam Chomsky has gone as far as to say had they (the antifascists) won, World War II might have been averted. While counter-factuals are interesting, they do not leave history behind them. As I traveled across Spain over the past few weeks I tried to see what did remain from that devastating conflict in the cities and towns I visited. This is some of what I came across.
I started out at Ronda, the site of a brutal massacre during the civil war. Shortly after the coup started in 1936 republicans massacred hundreds of suspected fascists and threw some down this ravine. You can read about Ronda here.
As I passed through Granada the evidence was a little more obvious. Granada cathedral is emblazoned with this.
Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera was the leader of the Spanish Falange – the most overtly fascist organization in Spain in the 1930s. The fact that it is carved into a church is not surprising. The catholic church in Spain was firmly part of the ruling elite and put its support behind the coup, but I will come back to this later. Indeed in Granada residues of the conflict were still being played out in the city’s university sector.
The symbol with five arrows represents the Spanish Falange, while the circled A represents Anarchism. Although often forgotten and written out of many histories, the anarchist C.N.T, Mujeres Libres and F.I.J.L. was the largest grouping in the anti-fascist side.
While these towns have bits here and there, Barcelona has a huge amounts to see relating to the civil war, but it’s not that obvious – you need to get a tour. Two years ago I took a civil war and revolution tour with Nick Lloyd, and I made it a priority once I arrived in Barcelona to take Nick’s tour again. Aside from interest in the Civil War, the tour is one of the most engaging I’ve ever been on. Here’s a quick overview of some of the sites you can take in on the tour.
The war in Barcelona was accompanied by a social revolution launched by the various anarchist and socialist organizations in the city. Left-wing organisations took over the most prominent buildings. The tour meets up at Café Zurich. In 1936 this was taken over by Mujeres Libres. Meaning “Free Women” they were a 50,000 strong organisation of anarchist-feminists who advocated equality between the men in women in all areas of life. Many of these women fought against the fascist insurrection in Catalonia.
The tour also takes in the darker sides of the conflict. For example this is the Hotel Colon. This became the seat of the P.S.U.C. controlled by the feared Spanish Communist Party during the war. From 1937 onwards they launched a series of attacks on other left-wing groups in an effort to gain control of the antifascist side. This hotel housed interrogation rooms where torture was frequently used.
I mentioned the partisan nature of the catholic church and their support for the fascists. In general the churches support for the wealthy also ensured they were despised by the poor. Within hours of the civil war starting in Barcelona churches were attacked and burned across the city. This struck me as not being dissimilar from the burning of landlord’s mansions during the war of Independence in Ireland. In Spain people identified churches as symbols of unjust authority. This church of Santa Maria de Pi for example was completely destroyed but has since been renovated.
After the fascist victory Barcelona suffered horrific repression. Franco the fascist dictator attempted to extirpate any sign of the city’s revolutionary past. Street signs were changed but luckily this one survived behind hoardings – the “plaza of the unknown militiaman”.
Perhaps the most tragic stop was this building in Sant Felip Neri. When you arrive it’s really obvious it had seen conflict first hand. Anyone who has seen the bullet marks on the G.P.O. will know however these marking were made from something far more powerful than bullets.
This was where 42 people including many children were killed when the Italian air-force bombed this square.
These are just some of the sights Barcelona has to offer. I can’t recommend Nick Lloyd’s tour enough, I have done the tour twice and intend on a third time when I am next in Barcelona. In this tour a lot of the mythology, eulogy and idealism which often clouds the history of the war is stripped away. Through the recounting of personal stories you are left with a good understanding of these intriguing events regardless of your prior knowledge. You can find Nick on Facebook here.
Next week I’ll post about my visit Carcassonne.