bThe story of two old castles sitting above and beyond Barcelona is one of gaolers becoming the gaoled, and the gaoled becoming the gaolers.  The guns that look down on Barcelona from Montjuic mountain were used not so long ago for keeping the millions below in-step and in-line with the orders of the day, but today you can take a stroll up to the fortress and instead of hearing the barking of military men you’ll her the laughter of children climbing all over the artillery as if they were always as harmless as the plastic cannons they play with at home.

For over 300 years Montjuic castle has been used both in defending the city from foreign incursions and to suppress the city’s internal rebellions. It was used to indiscriminately bombard the people below, and then, once the particular rebellion had been pound down, to imprison, torture and execute the survivors. In 1842, 1843 and 1856 the cannons opened up on the city below, killing hundreds each time, and reminding us that ‘terror bombings’ aren’t restricted neither to modern times nor only to ‘non-state’ fanatics. From the late 1800s on into the 20th century the castle was used as a site for the arrest, imprisonment, torture and executions of hundreds and thousands of political activists, trade unionists, socialists, republicans and – especially – anarchists, who became a prime target for suppression following a spate of bombings in the 1890s by individual anarchists. Two bombings in 1892 and 1896 triggered waves of mass arrests of anarchists and other agitators, with hundreds of activists being detained without definite duration and without legal representation. Five of the arrested were executed, triggering a massive campaign aiming to demolish the prison and release the remaining political prisoners, and although the campaign reached international heights it ultimately failed to prevent the prison from continuing to act as a site for repression. In 1909 Barcelona came very close to a revolution when a general strike was declared in response to further Spanish military incursions into Morocco. Martial Law was declared and the strikers were eventually ground down, with thousands arrested and tried in military courts. One of the arrested included the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer y Guardia (whose free-thinking, rationalist and secular pedagogy inspired the character Don Gregorio in La Lengua de Las Mariposas), who was executed by firing-squad in the Montjuic moats – “his longing for the uplifting and brightening of the poor, and for the destruction of superstition…for that he was shot” concludes his friend Joseph McCabe, who translated Ferrer’s book The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School. The same occurred following the 100,000-man strong LaCanadiense general strike of 1919, which, led by the Anarcho-Syndicalist National Confederation of Workers (CNT), achieved the eight-hour day for Catalonia, but only at the cost of hundreds of more arrests and continued repression.

With the arrival of the Second Republic in the 1930s, however, and with the rise of Luis Companys to the Catalonian presidency, the castle came under the control of the local Catalonian government, a transition marked by the flying of the red-and-yellow Catalan flag above the fortress walls. But with the outbreak of civil war in 1936 the castle returned to its former role as executor of military ‘justice’, with court-martials supressing opposition to the Republic and the revolution. From May Day 1937, when Barcelona’s revolution turned on itself in a spate of violence and tension between the Moscow-aligned communist party and non-Stalinist revolutionary left, the castle filled up with political prisoners, with nearly 1,500 locked up by March 1938. But in 1939 the forces that had held the city and the gaol fell to the fascist armies of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, and there would be yet more court-martials and more summary executions to follow. Astonishingly, the very man who in 1936 had raised the Catalan flag above the castle walls in a symbolic gesture of Catalan autonomy and self-defence, the very man who had laid a wreath of flowers in memory of the castles victims – Luis Companys – was locked up in Montjuic. After being captured by the Gestapo in France in 1940, he was taken to Madrid for torture and then transferred to Montjuic, where he was court-martialled and executed in the moat by firing squad. Companys had always been a target for the Francoist conspirators, as it was he who had led a 1934 leftist rebellion in Catalonia triggered by the right-wing federal government’s offer of three ministerial posts to the fascist Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA), with Companys declaring Catalan independence and receiving a thirty year prison sentence for it (which was subsequently overturned following the 1936 election of the Popular Front). After Companys had been imprisoned and the Catalan revolt suppressed, the northern mining region of Asturias was left to stand alone against the government troops, but ultimately Asturias fell after some 3,000 miners were killed in fighting and tens of thousands imprisoned during its suppression. A memorial to the life and death of Luis Companys can be found today at the site of his execution in the Montjuic moat.

With the consolidation of the Franco regime following his 1939 victory over the Second Republic, the fortress was converted into a military museum which was to “exalt the fatherland’s military glory”. The museum was open to the public from 1963 until 2009 when the city council had it shut down and converted into its current role as a “place for remembrance, for teaching the history of its conflicts and for dignifying all the people who suffered any kind of repression… a place to vindicate freedom and individual and collective human rights.” As beautiful as those words and the intentions behind them are, and as so far behind the present as those days seem, still you can’t help but fear that someday the fortress will return to its former in-glory; human beings apt as they are to recommit the crimes of the past – “first as tragedy, second as farce” as Marx said.

Just 45 minutes away from Montjuic there is another old castle on a hill with a similar history of repression, conflict and crime. Built in 1550, the castle which overlooks the village of Castelldefels was both a place of peace – being the site of a small chapel inside – and a place of war. During the upheavals of the early twentieth century the chapel was burnt and sacked by anti-clerical anarchists, and its shell soon became a holding cell for International Brigadiers who had been deemed subversive by their superiors. The prison was opened in March 1938 by the chief Political Commissar of the Brigadiers, André Marty (who would go on to become a leading figure in the French Communist Party), and was under the control of four directors in total, the first two of which, Milan Côpic and Marcel Lantès, were both tried and sentenced to death for their roles in torture and summary executions in the prison. Their trials, however, came too late, and both of them found freedom in the confusion and chaos that came with Franco’s march on Barcelona.

Mostly deserters or dissidents, the Brigadiers – either out of sheer boredom or longing for the outside world – begun drawing sketches and scratching etchings all across the chapel walls. They drew portraits of socialist, communist and anarchist heroes – Lenin, Dolores Ibarruri (‘La Pasionaria’), Maurice Thorez (French Communist Party leader) are all there – alongside scenes of horseraces and fellatio. The most beautiful drawings are scenes of the castle itself, sitting perched on the green hill with birds and war planes flying over. Perhaps these more complex ones, some say, were not drawn by the prisoners themselves, but by the guards, or perhaps by the prisoners on order from the guards; no-one really knows why they were drawn, and we only know of two of the artists – an Italian Antonio Stofella, and Frenchman Henri Lamotte – while others just scratched their names and stories on the wall.

There is still so much that is unknown about the prison, with most of the documents concerning the prisoners and prison-guards sitting somewhere in the Comintern archives in Moscow. We do know that the documents exist (all documents kept by the International Brigades were sent to Moscow following the Brigadiers’ withdrawal in 1938), and we do know that they contain so many of the prison’s secrets – who were the soldiers kept in Castelldefels, and how many of them were there? What were their supposed ‘crimes’, and what exactly happened to them during their imprisonment? What don’t we know? Some locals have talked of a mass-murder of up to sixty prisoners, but nobody can be sure whether this is myth or truth until some evidence is found, and to date nothing, I’m told, has been found concerning this fusilamiento; neither bullets nor bodies.

There is so much mystery that surrounds the castle, and probably we will never know of all that happened there, but the little chapel-castle-prison stands there today as a reminder of the murky shadows of war, of the corruption and violence that inevitably must come with power, authority and impunity. There is little heroism or glory in that castle but for the fading signs of human creativity, imagination and hope scratched all across the bullet-riddled walls of that old place of worship and of war.