The Spanish Civil War: 78 years after the coup

So much of the twentieth century’s blood, spilt across all longitudes and latitudes of the world, flowed through Spain’s sprawling boulevards and plazas before bubbling on to all corners of Europe and the world. The years of 1936-1939 were truly tragic for Spain, the cause truly heroic, the consequences catastrophic. It is for those reasons that the war is so compelling; we witness the collapse of an ageing monarch, the creation of a democratic republic, the rise and fall of a reactionary right, the resurgence of a liberal-left Popular Front coalition, an aborted coup against the elected government and the subsequent descent into civil war upon the madness of the military, led by General Francisco Franco, a man prepared to “shoot half of Spain” to achieve his objective. Revolution, reaction and repression; this is the story of 1930s Spain, and this is what I tried to understand during my stay in Madrid and Barcelona, the two great bastions of Republican resistance to fascism during the war.

For  both Madrid and Barcelona the blood still seems yet to dry. They are both, in each of their own ways, attempting to resolve the seemingly irresolvable – the cultural lesions of civil war – and come to terms with the past. But those terms have by no means been written up in good faith; over three decades of Francoism has ensured his name ‘liveth for evermore’ in the many monuments to ego, power and tyranny that scatter the country, monuments both large (the Victory Arch in Madrid – commemorating the defeat of the Republican forces in the University City – being one of the most spectacular), and small (the countless street names named after Franco’s favoured generals that still remain). Meanwhile, the post-Franco fear of re-igniting the powder keg has ensured that even small efforts at restoring historical memory have been attacked. In Madrid, for instance, amemorial to the International Brigades (the tens of thousands of political humanists of all different shades – unionists, socialists, communists, democrats, anarchists and liberals – who left their homeland to fight for the Spanish democracy, including at least 66 Australians) was nearly removed for contravening planning laws, while myths propagated in the post-war decades still can be heard being spoken of as truths. In the Plaza de San Felipe Neri, Barcelona, I heard a tour-guide confirm the myth that the plaza’s walls were used by Republican firing squads to execute Nationalist sympathisers, when in reality the marks that scar the wall were the result of an Italian air-raid which killed some 42 people hiding in a basement below, the majority of them children who had been playing in the plaza only moments before.  The shrapnel-cut wall will forever remain, as one Barcelonan said, as an eternal memorial to victims of war and terror all across the world.

Two men who are trying to restore the nation’s memory of those times are DavidMatheison in Madrid and NickLloyd in Barcelona, both British expats and both experts in the field. Their contribution to this process comes in the form of guided tours of the civil war sites in each city, tours which by no means flinch from the barbarities committed by both sides. You will learn, in Barcelona, of the anti-clerical violence, of mass-murders of Catholic clergymen, of the burning of churches, and, stunningly, you will see pictures of the exhumation of church crypts and the public display of their remains.  If you want to explore beyond the boulevards of Barcelona’s heart and delve further into the story, then take the metro up to Barcelona’s Montjuïc foothills and you will see the bomb-shelter tunnels dug by an entire city neighbourhood to protect themselves from some of the world’s first ever terror bombings, scenes repeated all across the country and immortalised by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, still hanging in Madrid’s Museo Reina de Sofía. The tunnels have been restored to serve as a “silent witness to the cruelty of war.”

No country is, of course, immune from historical amnesia. All Australians know of the Right’s incessant attempts to deny the existence, enormity and importance of the Stolen Generations. We are seeing more of the same in the current debate about the FrontierWars, and of course the memory of the First World War is particularly susceptible to manipulation by those who would have us sacrifice yet another generation of our own to the imperial imperatives of foreign states, and at the least the din surrounding the ANZAC legend tends to drown out any analysis of the truly ‘nation-shaping’ battles played out on home-front.

A lesson in the importance of historical memory can be found in the story of FranciscoBoix, a Catalan photographer who was exiled to France following the fall of Barcelona. Born in 1920, Boix was only sixteen years old when civil war erupted across Spain, only 20 when, after fighting against Hitler’s march on Paris, he was captured and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp along with many of his exiled Spanish comrades. There in Mauthausen – thanks to his expertise in photography, and thanks to the Germans’ insistence on documenting every facet of the camp life, and also thanks to the silent support of an Austrian woman by the name of Ms.  Pointner whose role was to stow away the negatives in her own home – he and his comrades were able to smuggle some 3,000 negatives of all the photographs he was ordered to produce, photos which became indispensable in convicting Nazi war criminals following the fall of Berlin, including Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the highest level SS officer to be convicted in the Nuremburg trials. Boix – a man robbed of his government, his city, his country, his highest hopes and dreams – was, at least, able to live to see justice dealt to his thieves. Had Boix not had the courage to copy the negatives, and had an ordinary Austrian woman not found the courage to hide the negatives from SS eyes, and had the many ordinary people involved in this operation not done the little that they could, had they not used their skills, position or luck to fight, then the world would have lost to the furnace the very stuff of history, along with the slim opportunity for justice to prevail in that century of blood, as all evidence would have gone up in the smoke and ashes of those photographs. As Nick Lloyd commented, this is surely the truest definition of heroism; that of the ordinary person doing the little that they can do with the little they have to fight against injustice; to act.

David Matheison and Nick Lloyd are, in their own ways continuing the work of Boix, slowly working away to ensure that all will not be forgot, that our collective memory won’t be the final victim of Franco’s coup. Any visitor to Spain should then join one of their tours through two cities which once presented humanity with one last ray of light before the sun set so prematurely on that century of blood, the loss of which is bitterly tragic beyond all words.

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