This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 49/50: 19 June – 3 July 1937

June 21

Andreu Nin, the leader of the POUM is assassinated. After being held for four days in a secret Communist prison in Alcála de Henares and tortured, Soviet KNVD members kill Nin. Nin never gave the Soviets the information they interrogated him and his fellow members for, or never had the information.  The exact details of Nin’s killing will never be fully established. Nin had been the leader of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) for two years, and stood against fascism and Stalinism, and in favour of workers and peasants’ rights. Nin’s death by Soviet agents marked the demise of both the POUM and its revolutionary movement. Hundreds more are killed or imprisoned after Nin’s death. While Communists and anti-Stalinists are technically both anti-fascist and against Franco’s Nationalists, the constant fighting between leftist factions is a huge contributor to the Republicans being by Franco’s men.

June 24

Bilbao is now fully in the hands of the Nationalists and hundreds of thousands have fled either over the border into France or west towards Santander and the Galician coast. The total toll of the Bilbao battle is not established, but the defeated Republican/Basque fighters had started with 50,000 troops, the winning  Nationalists with 75,000 (including 15,000 Italians, which only around 105 killed). Nationalists give out food to some of the remaining women in the Basque region, those who were unable to flee the city. The strategic production factories of the Basque country are now in Nationalist hands.

June 27

The high point of Soviet intervention in the SCW is coming to a close. The Soviet Union has been sending regular shipments of military equipment to Spain to help the Republicans, in return for Spain sending its gold to the Soviets, who get the better end of the deal, grossly overcharging the Spanish government. At this stage, there are over 1000 Soviet tank crews on the ground in Spain and the bulk of trained pilots fighting for the Republicans are Soviet. The communist faction of the Republican clause is now strongest than ever and the diplomatic relations between the Spanish and Soviets remains strong in an effort to defeat fascism in Spain. But now shipments will become sparse and Soviet men will be withdrawn from Spain as the Nationalists continue to win and the Republicans suffer massive casualties and lose ground.

June 30

The front line around the Aragon region is a huge 450 kilometres stretch from the Pyrenees down to the city of Teruel. The Republicans have far more troops in the region and the Nationalists have not made the area a priority. The Republicans have already attacked Huesca and failed, and are yet to attack Teruel. As a large Brunete battle is being mounted west of Madrid, the Republicans decide to start planning an offensive of the historical village of Albarracín, 35 kilometres west of Teruel. That way, the Nationalists will be forced to keep troops in the Aragon region instead of attacking Brunete. The front lines on the east side of Madrid around Jarama and Guadalajara still have not moved since their offensives early in the year. The Albarracín offensive is prepared for early July.

XV International Brigades outside Brunete

July 2

The preparation for the battle of Brunete is almost complete. Brunete is 30 kilometres west of Madrid, and is chosen as it is on the Extremadura Road. The Nationalists hold the region of Extremadura and use the roads to supply troops circling Madrid. By cutting off supplies, the Republicans aim to save the city of Madrid from the Nationalists. Once Brunete is taken, then the Republicans plan to march 100 kilometres southwest to Talavera de la Reina, which has been held by the Nationalists for the whole war, nearing on one year. This will cut off Nationalist troops from the southern strongholds. Republican troops at Carabanchel, the southern suburbs of Madrid, will be launched at the same time to tie up Madrid-based Nationalists.

The Communists within the Spanish government have been pressing to take Brunete for months, and are pulling Soviet aid back at the same time, as Republican ports have been taken by Nationalists. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrín wants France to open its borders to allow arms shipments through, but first they must prove to the French they are capable of military action. The offensive has been well planned and with large-scale reorganisation of the Republican men and equipment. Experienced commanders are put in place and will operate a surprise attack, despite being planned for three months. Upwards of 85,000 men are placed ready to take the hilly terrain with new Soviet tanks, attacking the Nationalists who have 20,000 fewer troops in the region. The attack is planned for July 6.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

 

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 48: 12 – 19 June 1937

June 12

The Republican attack on Huesca begins in the hope of stalling the Nationalist attack on Bilbao. The XII International Brigade, now without their General, join Spanish Republicans under their General and storm Huesca, 300 kilometres southeast of Bilbao, and just 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza. Huesca has been held by the Nationalists through the war and while they lack the men the Republicans have, they are well dug into the area. The Republicans have 50,000 men, mostly anarchists and POUM members from Barcelona, sent after the May Days a month earlier. Thousands of Republicans men are cut down with machine guns and artillery fire in what will become a week-long offensive.

Republican/Basque fighters outside the Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 13

The battle of Bilbao sees fighting in the streets of the city, with Nationalist supporters rising up against their fellow Basques. The Republican/Basque army is in retreat, headed for Santander, and Nationalist sympathisers, Fifth Columnists, riot through the city and take strategic buildings. Anarchist militias, not fleeing with the army, fight back against the columnists and beat them back, with mass casualties on both sides. The Basque police force, still in the city, have to hold back the anarchist fighters as they try to storm jails to kill Nationalist prisoners.

Women flee in Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 14

Most of the city is now evacuated as the people of Bilbao flee ahead of the awaiting Nationalist army, who are already camped inside the Iron Ring. The government and army have completed much of their retreat and it is every man for himself as the Basque capital is about to fall.

Basque fighters outside Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 16

The POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) party is officially outlawed in Spain. Their leaders are rounded up mostly in Barcelona. Their official leader, Andreu Nin, is not yet found and caught.

Republican troops continue their offensive against Huesca, to draw Nationalist troops away from Bilbao. Republicans attack the villages of nearby Alerre and Chimillas, but are beaten back by the Nationalists. Around 9,000 Republican men are now dead and the offensive to take Huesca is all but over.

June 17

Andreu Nin is found in Barcelona and arrested. He, along the other POUM leaders are secretly taken by Communists to an illegal torture prison at Alcalá de Henares, just north of Madrid. Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov, a General for the KNVD (Soviet internal affairs), tortures Nin for days. It was admitted by Spain’s Education Minister, a Communist, that Nin was interrogated and would not talk. They then used torture in the form of peeling off Nin’s skin and tearing his muscles and they tried to get information out of him. Within days, Nin’s face was unrecognisable. Whatever the Communists wanted, none of the POUM either had it, or would give in.

Minster of Health Federica Monstseny, and others soon start asking the Spanish government if they know the whereabouts of Andreu Nin and his party members. A campaign named Gobierno Negrín: ¿dónde está Nin? (To the government of Negrín: where is Nin?) begins as rumours spread Nin was taken to the Soviet Union for execution, or that he was killed when the Germans tried to save him (thus making him a secret fascist). Rumours swirl Nin was either with Franco in Salamanca or with Hitler in Berlin. Nin is never seen in public again.

Bilbao is bombed with 20,000 shells as the capital city is destroyed. Basque President Aquirre makes a secret deal to send 900 Nationalist prisoners from jails and hand them to the enemy, in the hopes of saving some innocents who are being bombed.

Jaime I, a dreadnought battleship of the Spanish Navy, is destroyed in Cartagena. Bombed three times in drydock on May 21, it is beginning another round of repairs when an explosion happens without warning. Sabotage versus accident is never fully explained. All three of Spain’s dreadnought sister-ships are now destroyed.

Shells knock out bridges into Bilbao

June 18

The Basque government is ordered to destroy all its valuable factories in Bilbao, so the Nationalists cannot gain access. Bilbao has many strategic factories for the war effort and the Basque government refuses the command from the Republic Spanish government. The Basques believe European war will soon come and the Nationalists will be destroyed.

The Nationalists walk straight into Bilbao

June 19

Juan Manuel Epalza, working for the Basque government, leads 900 Nationalist prisoners out of prison in the night and hands them over the awaiting Nationalist army outside Bilbao. At dawn, the Nationalist troops walk into Bilbao without opposition. About 200,00 people have now fled, and the Nationalists start giving food to some left behind in the city. The Bay of Biscay is filled with boats as Basques try to flee the Nationalists. Many refugee boats are overcrowded and sinking, and the Nationalist Navy have ships waiting to round them up and send them home. Many boats attempt to float to France, and Non-Intervention Committee ships, mostly from Britain, watch them but do not go to their aid. Many sink are or are sent back to Spain.

Franco now has the multiple steel and mine factories in Bilbao in his hands. But he has to give two-thirds of all production to Hitler. With Hitler is making his own preparations for war, Franco owes Hitler for all the German planes, weapons and killing that has been done on Franco’s behalf.

Rumours continue about the possible death of Andreu Nin, who may or may not still be alive in Alcalá de Henares. Many do not know officially of his secret arrest yet, but are well aware the Communists have pounced.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 3: Barcelona and the civil war history tour with Nick Lloyd

Barcelona. The locals are fanatical about their hometown, and tourists flock there like teenage boys to a wet t-shirt competition. I spent three hours on a high-speed train from Madrid, screaming through the Aragon region at 300km/h, imagining what the Spanish civil war fronts in the area would have looked like. The landscape between Spain’s capital and its Catalonian equal changes remarkably, and from each hill, mountain range and abandoned farmhouse, I sat with my face glued to the window (and not the Twilight movie playing inside the cabin….. why, Renfe, why?)

I got to Barcelona and experienced warmth! Yay! Madrid and the other locales of my trip had been mild at best. I got one of those taxi drivers who assumes you are a guiri who doesn’t know they are being taken the long way around to La Rambla. My hotel, Hotel Montecarlo, which is situated metres from a scene written by George Orwell made me feel better. My cheap single room was massive and offered a spa bath that I would never have time to use.

I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia eons ago, when my knowledge of Spain was next to nil. I re-read the book a week before I landed on the Iberian peninsular, to re-acquaint myself with the man and the Barcelona he knew. Orwell’s frustration, and the overwhelming feeling that the Republican factions were all doomed to fail in the war, rang in my ears as I set off around the city on my own.

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Carrer de Bisbe in the Barri Gótic

My goal for the afternoon was to visit Montjuïc Castle and do the self-guided Shadow of The Wind walk. Montjuïc Castle has amazing views of the sea and the city, second to none, and the cable car was good fun. There was an exhibition on Manuel Carrasco i Formiguera in one of the old prison cells. I was pleased to take a look through and the Catalan language didn’t get the better of me. In the middle of a pleasant afternoon, I was the only soul in there. That was the thing that struck me about Montjuïc – the level of tourists put me off. I was tourist too, so I couldn’t point the finger, but as I wandered the courtyard where famous figures of Catalonia and the civil war were imprisoned and killed, it was filled with people visiting the built-in cafes and gift shops. I got the impression that the soul of the place has been wiped. However, if you’re looking for a nice place to visit, by all means, see Montjuïc Castle and the sight-laden Montjuïc area, as some of it is excellent. But I didn’t find what I was looking for.

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The former cell of Lluís Companys, once-leader of Catalonia, before he was taken out and shot, probably near where you can now buy a ‘I ❤ Barcelona’ shirt

I wandered the Barri Gòtic quarter, my Shadow of the Wind tour map etched into my memory. I wasn’t keen to take many photos (I have ‘done’ Barcelona before), but the swathes of people once again put me off. An evening out with a group for dinner and drinks was fun (great fun with The Barcelona Taste), but I still hadn’t found the Barcelona I was looking for.

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The approximate fictional location of the Sempere & Sons bookstore and upstairs apartment in Shadow of the Wind

The next morning, I waited inside Café Zurich in Plaça Catalunya and watched holiday-makers using hand gestures to order breakfast. It was only 10am, yet the city heaved with tourists, many lined up to take the generic bus tour of the city (it could be an easy way of getting around the city if you needed to go to multiple places, however the commentary and delays could be annoying, I would imagine). But I knew my luck was about to change. Enter Nick Lloyd, who arrived right on time. Besides myself, another ten people, couples from all over the world, emerged from the crowds in search of a different Barcelona. A handful of years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about anarchism. It doesn’t sound pretty. However, I now subscribe to their way of thinking and, it seems, so do many others. We didn’t have to wait long before we could have our eyes opened to a whole different Barcelona.

Nick Lloyd is no foreigner in Spain. He may be English but has lived in Spain well over 20 years and you wouldn’t be able to find someone as well-versed on the history of Barcelona, and I am confident there isn’t another person as enthusiastic about its colourful past, either. A quick introduction to one another, and then we stood on the corner of Plaça Catalunya in the shade of the Catalunya a Francesc Macià monument. Despite the frenetic location, Barcelona was allowed to come to life. The nerd in me jumped right in; Nick pointed out a few landmarks which had me happily squealing ‘I know all this’ in my mind (it was too early for me to go showing my nerdiness to the public). As Nick described the hot summer day of 18 July 1936, we could feel it, despite it being an unusually cool May day. Nick’s commentary allows you to feel the excitement that would have buzzed in the Catalonian air as 30,000 CNT works stormed the barracks in search of weapons, ready to rise and defend their city against 12,000 rebel soldiers. However, Barcelona has a civil war history unlike other Spanish locations. They didn’t simply rise up to fight the coup and onslaught of Franco’s rebel army, but they also decided to rise up and fight among themselves – rich versus poor, ideal versus ideal. A great class divide existed in the city and the poor were done with the inequality. With the front line of the war so far from Barcelona throughout the majority of the war, there was still plenty to fight for.

There was no problem imagining the once Hotel Colon (now the Banco Espanol de Credito) occupied and covered in Communist  propaganda and posters of Marx and Stalin, or the people sleeping in the square, some being part of the 6,000 athletes in the city to participate in the Popular Olympics. With the Olympics in Hitler Germany, many athletes boycotted and chose instead to go to Barcelona. But with a war bearing down just one day before the start of the event, instead many foreigners (around 300) became the first International soldiers to take part in the Spanish Civil War. By the looks of the other group members, this is a largely unknown fact, regardless of the nation that my group companions hailed from.

We moved down La Rambla, which as usual heaved with tourists and souvenir stands. We paused outside Hotel Continental, a pivotal spot for George Orwell. With Homage to Catalonia very fresh in my mind, I was able to stand and listen to Nick (who can recite Orwell by heart and with great fervour) recount the tale of Orwell, returning to see his wife and having to be rushed out, as the police were ready to arrest him for being a POUMPartit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista, member (he fought for them but was not Trotskyist, he wanted to be an International Brigader). It was easy to imagine the Barcelona that Orwell saw while sleeping on the street. Out came Nick’s iPad, which is a gold mine of civil war history. With a popular Republican chant playing for us, he asked us to look to the throngs of tourists and instead see the hopeful look of the workers, weapons in hand, walking up La Rambla, with the confidence that their time had come. That change was upon them. At last they would be equals. At last they would have the freedoms they wished to enjoy. We all know that come 29 January, 1939, those ideals were long crushed and the fight was over, among each other and against Franco, but for that brief moment, you could feel the faith and loyalty that came over the people of Barcelona.

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The one quiet spot on La Rambla

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Orwell’s Hotel Continental

We wandered the narrow streets of the Barri Gòtic and as the tourists began to fall away, and I had the chance to talk with Nick, mostly about the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) for my Barcelona based-novel due next year. If anyone could help me out, it is Nick, and he was gracious and informative. Coming to Barcelona had suddenly become worth the trip. We stopped outside the church of Santa Maria del Pi, which has one of the world’s largest rose windows, and it is truly awe-inspiring. If you do a quick Google search, Wikipedia will tell you that the church was damaged in a fire in 1936. If the internet was ever wrong, this is the moment. Nick spares no details of what went on here in 1936. Nick explained how, during the war only 20% of the population were Catholic and the church had become a target as it was a symbol of oppression. My knowledge on this subject was already fairly substantial, but watching the others in the group become familiar with the facts was interesting. In the quiet plaza, it become easy to imagine the church, with its smashed rose window, interior gutted by fire. However, Nick’s trusty iPad provided the shocking photographs (even to me, though I have seen it all before) of bodies of clergy members, dug up and put on display, their dessicated bodies now simply bones, and stood up to show the masses outside churches to spread a message – “look, they are just the same as us. They are not special in any way”. Regardless of your political leanings, I doubt anyone today would approve of such behaviour, but it graphically shows the difference between modern Spain and the chaos of civil war.

A quick wander around into Placeta del Pi, and we got to see a real little gem. During the war, the plaza was renamed Plaça del Milicià DesconegutSquare of the Unknown Militiaman, to honour those who downed tools and took up arms during the uprising.  However, when Franco’s troops came into town in 1939, they slapped a board over the name and it went back to Placeta del Pi. In 2009, while doing restorative work on the church, they plucked the board off, and there it was, still as intact as the day an anonymous painter climbed up with his brush. There is now a memorial plaque also attached inside the plaza to recognise the occasion.

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On we went, weaving through the Barri Gòtic and free of the tourists. The quiet alleyways led us to Plaça Sant Felip Neri. Here lies the church of the same name, which has the scars of the war on show for all to see. The pock-marked facade, remnants of a bomb, has become something of a icon. Francoists spread the rumour that the holes in the stone were made by bullets, when Republicans lined up priests and murdered them. Not so, and Nick knows all for those who wish to learn more. On 30 January 1938, a bomb was dropped, one of many in Barcelona’s aerial bombing nightmare during the war. Landing in Plaça Sant Felip Neri, it killed 42 people, many children who had run for the church in search of safety. On our visit to the church, there were a group of children kicking a football around, right in front of the church. 75 years earlier, children were killed on that spot while they looked for comfort and security. Again, Nick’s commentary spares no detail, no gruesome reality, of what Barcelona had become by that time. The war had moved on, and so had the attitudes; disenchantment had set in as lives were repeatedly taken and destroyed. The shiny facade of the city that gets rolled out for the tourist each day didn’t exist on those streets as we wandered and spoke. It seemed easy to understand the desperation that plagued the city.

People had questions as we walked; Nick had all the answers. From significant events to daily life, Nick can give all the details. We popped into the silent Església de Sant Jaume, for a little-known piece of history. This church was burned during the war (as they all were), but Nick had found detailed stonework depicting the events of 1936. I didn’t take photos (I got a weird vibe from the place, and I don’t ‘do’ religion), and I will leave the details so you can learn all about it in Nick’s upcoming guidebook.

We headed up La Rambla, while Nick took the time to stress the most important facts of the CNT to me for my novel. We wandered past my hotel and Cafe Moka, which featured in Orwell’s book. If you want to look hard, you can spot tiny marks, bullet holes long forgotten. The soul is gone from Cafe Moka, it is now refurbished to cater to tourists, who pay a high price for getting an English or French menu. (Honestly, Spanish to English menu translations do my head in. I always say I want a Spanish one if my guiri status gets noticed. It’s a much easier read)

We stop just past Hotel Rivoli next door. The spot was a pivotal location in Homage to Catalonia, as Orwell’s apparent disillusion takes hold. I felt lucky to have all my previous knowledge, because the “May Events” in 1937 are a complex and desperate scenario. Gone are the revolutionary tunes of 1936, and the Rambla is still, a sight hard to imagine in the 2013 craziness. The hotel is the former POUM headquarters and Cafe Moka was barricaded, with the Stalinist police members inside. Orwell is on the roof across the street and shots went back and forward for three days between the groups. His wife was up the road and he couldn’t get to her. Nick can help you understand the disarray the city had fallen into.  Over three days, hundred of anarchists and their cohorts were killed by Stalinists. While the war had two years to run, it marked a real turning point. To the side of the now-hotel, stands a plague in dedication of Andreu Nin, a friend of Orwell, who was arrested in June 1937. Orwell never heard from his friend again and hoped he had escaped. He, and the rest of us, knew a happy ending was unlikely. Nin was tortured and murdered outside Madrid a short time later.

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We crossed La Rambla and headed in the El Raval quarter. I don’t know why, but I felt happier and safer in this area, despite being told otherwise prior to the trip. It has more personality than Barri Gótic. It’s noisy, a bit dirty, but has good food, a diverse population and is making no claims about itself. We went into La Llibertària, a CNT co-op bar, and sat down to a twelve-way conversation about all we had seen, surrounded by war propaganda posters. A perfect end. Nick was kind enough to take time for all the questions that the group had, and as a Spanish civil war nerd, I felt really happy to be in the company of people who were genuinely interested in the history and the cause of the people. It seemed perfectly logical that our truly international group would rave about Nick and his tour when he departed.

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I left La Llibertària and wandered El Raval on my own with a smile. I grew up in a working class mining town, so the actions and ideals that the area held during the war were no mystery to understand. A few flags for Catalonian independence hung on balconies. The libertarian anarchism spirit may well still exist in Barcelona, with current political situation with inequality and unemployment.

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Carrer dels Tallers in Raval

Before jumping on an eagerly-anticipated train to Valencia, I stopped by Plaça de George Orwell in the Barri Gótic. It’s an unremarkable place, but in an almost-ode to Orwell’s classic novel 1984, it is home to Barcelona’s first CCTV camera. That is worth a smile on its own.

I won’t lie, I felt relieved to get out of the behemoth that is Barcelona. If you want to visit for your first or tenth visit, all power to you. Climb the Sagrada Familia and the Gaudí buildings. Walk La Rambla, buy overpriced fridge magnets and walk the beach. Get crammed into the cathedral and watch for pickpockets (I saved one guy from having his wallet stolen and witnessed another lose his bag, luckily he got it back). I don’t want to accidentally to stop anyone from trying what millions have done before them. I am not a fan of tours of any kind but this trip is one-of-a-kind. You could visit these locations on your own, but without Nick they would just be sites, like the myriad on offer. For three hours and €20, Nick Lloyd can give you a visit that leaves a mark on your soul.

You can read about and book Nick Lloyd’s tour here – Spanish Civil War Tour in Barcelona

You can read over 130 5-star reviews about Nick Lloyd here – Trip Advisor – Nick Lloyd

Up next…. (a fun one) On the road with ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

Click here for the other parts of this series – Spain 2013 in Review

 
*in the absence of my notebook I have written this from memory, so please correct me if any war detail is incorrect!