This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 28: 22 – 29 January 1937

Week 28: 22 – 29 January 1937

January 22

The Nationalists forces have been constantly battling to take Madrid since early November and still not able to get into the city. Franco decides its time to change tactics and attempt to cut off the city  by crossing the Jarama river, south-east of the city. This will cut off Madrid’s communications with Valencia to the east, which is the temporary Spanish capital. Franco groups together General Mola, General Varela and General Orgaz, and plans an attack 7 miles south of Madrid, with 25,000 troops and heavy artillery. The German Condors are also called in to help, while Italian troops plan an attack on Guadalajara at the same time. They plan to attack in early February.

Nationalist forces in the Jarama region

January 25

The newly formed Army of the South is still marching towards Malaga in the far south. The city is still in Republican hands, but their inland areas are slowing being eaten away by incoming troops left and right, while Italian troops march in to meet them in Malaga. The troops will take the remaining 10 miles left inland around the city in every direction as they face no resistance from unarmed Republicans.

January 27

The Basque Statute of Autonomy in the north is still holding, after being formed in October. The city of Bilbao is filled with civilians who have fled to the far north to find safety from Nationalist forces. But the Nationalists have been striking the city from the air repeatedly, to outcries from both sides. The Basques/Republicans are mostly civilians trying to stay safe, and there are prison-ships parked in the city where Nationalists are being held, now in danger by their own side. Over January, 224 are killed.

January 29

The workers’ militia are still controlling Barcelona, and most of the Catalonia region; most workers belong to the CNT/FAI. These militias have been working with the Catalonian government since the uprising in July, though the workers unions have control of the area. They have around two million members, plus the allies from the UGT union with one million members, and the Communists have just a few thousand. Regardless of numbers, everyone has equal representation.

Through some of the Catalonia region, and through much of the neighbouring Aragon region, militias have established an anarchist-led movement based on freedom and lack of government, working with the locals. While these sides in Barcelona are opposed to the Nationalist invaders, the Republican government in Valencia also sees these people as enemies, as the movement promotes freedom from government. As the situation continues to evolve, the CNT maintain control, with some representation from the Communists. The anarchists have opposition to all supervisory positions.

But trouble is starting to brew as so many factions working together is running into constant problems. The anarchists cannot work closely with the Socialists, Communists and Catalan nationalists (as in wanting independence from Spain, not the rebel Nationalists). Barcelona also has the communists splitting into different factions, some supporting Spain and the Soviet Union, the others supporting the Catalonian independence groups. Also now gaining traction are the Marxists, who formed the POUM (including famous writer George Orwell), who believe in war to gain social revolution, like the anarchists.  But the Marxists are also flaring up against Trotsyists. With all these groups working and living together, while trying to set up a new social order and hold back the Nationalist troops trying to conquer the area, things are getting heated and shaky in the northeast. They are more looking at each other rather than their common enemy.

XV International Brigade volunteers arrive in Barcelona, January, 1937

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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 are linked to source for credit.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

 Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

If you are new and don’t understand the Basque country, it is an independent region of Spain in the far north. It is (roughly on the above map) the green and two smaller red locations to its left, at top under France. Today it is fully restored to its people.

September 5

The beautiful Basque city of Irún, in Spain’s north, is destroyed in battle. The city is in a pivotal location on the coast, and on the borders of both France and the Spanish region of Navarre. As Navarre is a stronghold for the Carlists on the Nationalist side, the 3,000 Republican fighters need to hold Irún in order to gain supplies from France. Nationalist destroyers and battleships have been bombarding the town for almost a month, and also have planes, tanks and 2,000 well-trained soldiers. German and Italian planes bomb the town, and drop pamphlets, warning the population of mass executions like in the town of Badajoz. Most of the battle takes place on the south side of the city near the Convento de San Marcial, where Republicans fighters, made up of Basque nationalists, miners of Asturias (who are akin to fighting), and communists volunteering from France, are alongside the locals. However they lack training and weapons, with only some guns, dynamite, and eventually reduced to throwing rocks.

Republicans surrender in Irún

Fighting goes on throughout the day, and the Republicans shoot vicious Nationalist Colonel Alfonso Beorlegui Canet in the leg, on the international bridge of Irún (he will die a month later of gangrene). But the Republicans are forced to retreat and abandon their city. Anarchist militia set fire to many key locations in the city as they flee, so they cannot be used by the Nationalists. (This decision would lead to many propaganda scenarios throughout the war, as Nationalists would then destroy a town and say ‘the rojos did it, just like in Irún, despite the fact it was untrue) Many of the population flee either to the safety of France if they can, or retreat further into the Basque country. Nationalist forces can now continue on towards the critical port city of San Sebastian, just 20 kilometres away. The Basque country is already cut off from a rest of Republican Spain and is set to become a guinea pig for German bombers practicing for WWII.

Irún post-siege

September 5 – 6

The battle of Cerro Muriano commences in the province of Cordoba, in Spain’s south. Following the battle in the city of Cordoba in August, outlying areas are now ready to be taken by the Nationalists, with Cerro Muriano just 20 kilometres north of the city. The Columna Miaja, which have up to 3,000 Republican fighters in the region, engage in a 36-hour siege between them and violent Regulares soldiers from Morocco and many Spanish Legion troops. The battle leaves a huge number of men dead in the town. The Republican side is completely eliminated while the Nationalist take the town with few deaths.

The battle of Cerro Muriano includes the moment captured of the iconic ‘Falling Soldier’ photograph by Robert Capa, and will be covered in a ‘This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra’ post.

Falling soldier by Robert Capa

September 6

Italian aircraft arrive on the island of Mallorca to set up new bases, so they can begin serious bombing campaigns on the mainland, especially targeting Barcelona.

September 8

Portuguese sailors on two navy vessels mutiny against their officers, so they can seize the ships and go to Spain, to help the Republicans. But the mutiny is crushed by men who are loyal to Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. The mutiny only strengthens repression against communism and left-wing ideals in Portugal.

September 9

The first Non-Intervention Committee meeting is held in London. The meeting has 23 countries represented, with only Mexico supporting the Republicans. But because the borders are closed and ships patrol the coast, Mexico cannot give the Republican government support or supplies. Larger South American nations such as Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina support the Nationalists, and Germany and Italy are part of the committee, yet their dictators continue to aid the Nationalists. Britain and France are sitting on their hands like naughty children, the US is trying to keep clear, but Russia want to help communist interests within the Republic.

Meanwhile, in Toledo…

Destruction of the Alcázar over September

September 9

The battle of the Alcázar in Toledo has been running since July 21, with 1,000 Nationalists  trapped inside (and two-thirds of them too young/old/female to fight), while the Republicans are unable to breach the castle walls. Republican Major Vicente Rojo Lluch, one of the most prodigious military left-wing men in the war, walks blindfolded with a white flag to the Alcázar to negotiate surrender with Nationalist garrison leader, José Moscardó Ituarte, 1st Count of the Alcázar of Toledo. The Alcázar is now badly damaged but not yet fully breached, with two of its corner towers still standing. Moscardó has already sacrificed his teenage son to the Republicans in July (who held him hostage and let him call his father while being threatened with death. His father told him to die like a patriot and the son was killed one month later) and refuses to surrender the Alcázar to the Republicans. However, Major Rojo does allow for a priest (hard to find since Toledo’s have already been murdered or have fled) to go into the Alcázar and baptise two babies born inside during the siege.

The destruction of one of Spain’s most amazing sights

September 11

A priest with left-wing views (and thus, not yet murdered) arrives from Madrid. Vázquez Camarassa goes inside to do the baptisms and give absolution to those in the Alcázar. That night, Major Rojo and Colonel Moscardó meet again, to negotiate the release of the 500 women and children. The women refuse to leave, opting to take up arms and die rather than surrender to the Republicans. Overnight, grenades are thrown at the Alcázar, cutting off all communication with Colonel Moscardó, which would make a surrender negotiation with the Chilean ambassador the next morning impossible.

Nationalist women and children participate in the siege

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Adventures of a Doctor’ by E. Martínez Alonso

Martínez

Adventures of a Doctor by Eduardo Martínez Alonso seems to be so rare, I can’t find any cover art or a blurb about this book. I managed to purchase a damaged copy from the New Zealand parliamentary library, and when they tossed this book to me for a mere $6 (about €3.60), they obviously didn’t know what a treasure they had. Eduardo Martínez is quite an extraordinary man with a story that seems to have been largely lost. With the market flooded with 1001 Spanish civil war books, it comes as a great surprise that this book doesn’t get more recognition.

The story starts with the author born in Vigo, Galicia in 1903. His father was from Uruguay, and was the consul in Vigo. As a young boy, Martínez travelled to his father’s homeland, along with his family (he was one of eleven children, and talks of his mother constantly having to nurse his siblings). The story tells of life in northern Spain in the era, and exploits with his brothers and attending a boarding school with mixed success. In 1912, Martínez’s father received a post to Glasgow, and the whole family moved north for a new life. Martínez dreamed of working in hotels or on ships, able to meet people and travel far and wide. He became bilingual at a young age, seeing the benefit of speaking Spanish, English, French and more. But it was his father who said he would be a doctor, not a sailor. As each of the eight boys grew and carved out professions (sisters, of course, were to be wives and caregivers), the prophecy of the hard-working consul came true. The family and Martínez recalls the first world war, his school years and an eventual trip back to Uruguay.

As a trained doctor, Martinez moved to Madrid with his grandmother, and speaks of seeing Anna Pavlova dance at Teatro Real, with the King and Queen in attendance.  He quickly took up a post at Red Cross Hospital, and met Queen Ena, British wife of King Alfonso XIII, and the Duchess of Lecera, who were delighted to have an English-speaking doctor. News travelled of an English-speaking doctor in favour with the queen, and Martínez was in hot demand. Just eighteen months later, Martinez graduated from San Carlos Medical Facility and while meeting the King and Queen socially and professionally, was appointed the medical adviser to the royal family. This proved to be an amazing and dangerous post.

When the Second Spanish Republic was founded in 1931, Martínez was in the palace in Madrid with the royal family as they were deposed. He tells of sitting casually with Queen and princesses as the monarchy fell. As the family were forced into exile and as Spain underwent revolution, Martínez’s position as a monarchist him an easy target. As civil war came five years later, things changed dramatically. Martínez got his family out of Spain in July 1936, or off to the safety of Vigo, and knew he would be in danger as a former royal family aide. Through his work for the Red Cross, he was ordered by a Communist faction to work as a doctor for the Republican side of the war.

On Saturday morning the shooting started. We sat in a bar and heard the crackling of machine guns, the burst of hand grenades, and I saw smoke arising from many quarters of Madrid. By Monday morning a general strike had been called. Everything was paralysed except murder, arson, and rape. The Spanish civil war had commenced – Pg 70

Martínez talks of watching a church burning as priceless works of art were set alight along with the riches of the churches of Madrid. He saw a priest thrown on the flames but was unable to save his life when he pulled the screaming body from the blaze. Most priests were taken out to Casa del Campo to be shot. Men were burning priests but trying to revive pigeons which fell from bell towers, overcome by smoke. Martínez had an apartment in Madrid, and he hid as many people  as he could throughout the war. Nuns and priest were hidden, and forced to serve meals to men who sat and spoke of vicious murders they had committed against the clergy.

Martínez was posted to a town outside Badajoz, Cabeza del Buey,  in the south-west, working for the Communists. While running the hospital, a young nurse, Guadalupe, suggested they flee and work for Franco’s troops instead, but Martínez seemed convinced that he would be killed at some stage, regardless of where he was posted, and claimed no political alliances. In Cabeza del Buey, he was forced to attend mass executions of seemingly innocent men, and despair at violent speeches about revolution and vengeance. He performed many surgeries and saved lives in the  most atrocious conditions. But with no warning, Martínez was shipped off, with Guadalupe, and sent to Ocaña, just outside Aranjuez, to work in the prison there, and be a prisoner himself. As he had in Cabeza del Buey, Martinez managed to get some nuns freed from prison to work as nurses, and treated patients while living in a cell himself. Between dire conditions and deadly activities, a patient told Martínez that his turn to be executed was near. An in understated manner, Martínez talked of his prison escape to Valencia in March 1937, were he managed to procure a fake passport and get aboard the Maine, a ship bound for Marseilles. 

Martínez quickly got himself back in Spain, despite the dangers. He chose to cross the lines and work for the ‘white’ side of Spain, Franco’s rebel army. Red Spain (the Republicans), he felt, thought nothing of him, his work, and long suspected their cause would lose the war, one they never had a chance to win. Posted to Burgos, Valladolid and then San Sebastien, Martínez  then found himself working on the front lines as Franco’s army continued to advance into enemy territory. Towns fell one by one as Martínez fought to save lives, but writes in such a  humble, unassuming manner. Once in Zaragoza, Martínez worked hard to care for patients at the hospitals, and pioneered the use of closed casts on wounds, a procedure first tried with less success twenty years earlier. Despite the smell offending wealthy female volunteers, Martínez’s experiment helped the lives of many patients otherwise in agony as they recovered. He was then moved on to his own mobile surgical unit in Teruel in 1938.

Martínez was there on the ground when troops stopped in Sarrión, 100kms north-west of Valencia, as the war finally came to its brutal end. On April 1st, 1939, the war was over and declared won by Franco in this small town, and after helping a man and his son to Valencia, Martínez sought out all those who had helped him during the war, and moved back to Madrid. No sooner than Martínez had helped his friends and former nurses, and begged for clemency for some condemned to death by the new regime, the second world war broke out. With some family in Vigo and some Britain, travelling on multiple passports, danger was again faced. As Hitler plowed through Europe, Madrid suffered greatly after the civil war and Martínez went to work at Miranda de Ebro, near Burgos, to help war refugees from all nations. With such a humble attitude, he glossed over his feat to aid refugees out of Spain, saving their lives, until in 1942, when his ferrying of innocents was discovered and he was forced to flee Spain. His time working with British Naval Attaché, Captain Alan Hillgarth is barely touched upon, but should surely serve as an incredible tale of a man saving lives at great risk to his own. This two-year period alone could serve as a story all of its own. Just his dramatic escape would serve as its own story, but the author covers it in a few sentences, and neglects to mention he fled with a new wife. He also failed to mention his first marriage which produced two children, but was annulled after Franco took power in 1939 (His wife was a British woman who went home without him). I only found about either marriage after studying the doctor further myself. There are no clues to whom these women are at any point in the book. His personal life is never touched upon.

Again, Martínez talks little of his involvement with the rest of the world war, after being detained when first arriving in Britain (no idea if his Spanish wife was also detained), but worked as a spy for Britain throughout and barely talks about it. He worked at Queen Mary Hospital after the war and oversaw great new procedural advances, meeting some of Europe’s finest surgeons, but then returned home to Madrid. Life was hard in the beleaguered nation, and he again went to work at Red Cross Hospital, specialising in chest surgery. He then moved on to working as the doctor for the Castellana Hilton, newly opened in 1953. He recounts stories of wealthy Americans, and famous movies stars (unnamed) alike, who came to Madrid for all sorts of reasons. He spoke with frustration at his patients demanding penicillin shots, not wanting to discuss why they need this medication. Many guests, male and female, had a penchant for sleeping around and wanting medicine to atone their sins, either before or just after the liaisons which bore infections. One guest talks of being raped and demanding penicillin, though the story is far from convincing to the doctor. Sexual liberation had come to the foreign guests at the Hilton, and expected Martínez’s penicillin to cover it up. He makes his disdain clear for these patients and the abuse of this groundbreaking medication, and of the myriad of alcoholics he was forced to attend to, when little could really be done for them.

The book is written in the manner of a doctor – no-nonsense, no fussing with detail, just the raw facts given out without prejudice. Martínez is a man with the story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it wouldn’t be his style. This book was written in 1961, and Martinez lived until 1972. It shows what really stood out to the doctor in his life, because details are excluded, and there are many secret operations he simply never wanted to discuss. He is free and easy with dates – because I know the civil war, I could piece together the timelines of the book, but needed to look up world war details and the opening of the Madrid Hilton, just to give myself an idea of how much time passed between chapters.

Martinez’s daughter, Patricia Martínez De Vicente, has written several books in Spanish about her father, notably La Clave Embassy: La Increíble Historia De Un Médico Español Que Salvó a Miles De Perseguidos Por El Nazismo. The stories not told by her father in his memoir are a whole other side to this man who worked tirelessly for others, and had a strong ability to do good, without any need to be recognised.  To read his book is a gift, and I will be also reading his daughter’s books.

*above photo taken just prior to release from the Spanish army, 1939. Photo supplied in the book (page 112)

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

CRZ

Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles. To this library, a man brings his ten-year-old son, Daniel, one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book and from the dusty shelves pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. But as Daniel grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. What begins as a vase of literary curiosity turns into a race find out the truth behind the life and death of  Julián Carax and to save those he left behind.

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With this number one bestseller, I will admit that I had high hopes when I finally sat down to read this book. Despite the the fact that the book has been available for several years in English, I only bought the book, along with its companions, The Angel Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, a few months ago. The Shadow of the Wind opens in 1945 in Barcelona, a city whose history I know well, and life under the regime of Franco is of particular interest to me. As soon as you begin to read, you get a feeling of darkness, of a life and time where things are tough, and people are simply getting by, the way they know best. Young Daniel Sempere finds a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, in a secret bookstore which changes his life. His father, a bookstore owner, introduces him to the larger-than-life Don Gustav Barceló, a book lover and buyer, which leads Daniel into a friendship and long-term crush on Barceló’s niece, Clara, a beautiful blind woman ten years his senior. Daniel reads to Clara and comes up with plenty of reasons to spend time with her over several years. At this point, I had to wonder where the storyline was attempting to take me, as the characters, while vivid, were not terribly endearing. I stopped reading at 100 pages and took a long beak.

But then the story beckoned me back. When Daniel is violently booted out of Clara’s life, he stumbles upon the book’s greatest character, Fermín Romero de Torres, a homeless man who comes to work in Daniel’s father’s bookstore. Fermín Romero de Torres, who is regularly identified with his full name, is a tremendous enriching character who always has the right thing (or, at least, the most amusing thing) to say. Daniel remains besotted with the books of Julián Carax, which sold poorly but somehow continued to be published throughout the 1930’s. Carax was shot dead in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, and all copies of his books have been destroyed, most notably by a fire. Daniel has a remaining copy, and there is a man who is desperate to get it from him, a terrifying stalker with no face, just the charred remains of skin that hangs from his bones. Throughout the book he constantly appears, under a false name, as a gruesome and soulless person who is prepared to hurt people for the sake of novels.

Through a series of well-described and easy to follow investigations, Daniel and Fermín unravel Carax’s short life, in the form of his schoolmates – a group of boys with rich fathers, along with several downtrodden boys who have managed to get into a well-to-do school. Each of these boys go about intertwining themselves in each other’s lives, and a vendetta is placed over Carax when he falls in love with his friend’s sister, to the disgust of another schoolboy friend, who is a vile and vicious individual named Francisco Javier Fumero. Fumero is a real villain, first a troubled boy, then a double-crossing spy and killer in the civil war, and now a policeman in search of violence and revenge on none other than Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres. Daniel and the dead Carax’s lives continue to be punctuated with many coincidences, both culminating in scary and life-altering moments in The Angel of the Mist, a haunted house that has many secrets waiting for those who are ready to find them out. I have to admit, I figured out the mystery and the twist about halfway through, but that may not happen for everyone.

This book is dark, no question, but also exceedingly intriguing, regardless of whether you understand Spain, its history and its way of life. The prose of this book had been described as ‘florid’, and it certainly is. You cannot go a single page without a lyrical metaphor and/or simile being thrown at you. At times,  it can be a little annoying, but some lines are genius. When Fermín speaks, you can imagine a light coming on, illuminating the dark world around him. When reading, you feel as if you are wandering the cold streets of Barcelona, with the feeling that something will jump out at you. You can feel the nervousness the damp, the worry and the angst. One character I loved is Nuria Monfort, one-time lover of Julián Carax, who endures a difficult life, knowing that she would not ever truly gain Carax’s heart, but my favourite character is Miquel Monfort, Carax’s best friend, and a tortured soul. This book is a love story, of Julián Carax and his Penélope, and of young Daniel Sempere and his Beatriz, whose love affairs take eerily similar twists despite being parted by time, and while romance has to hide in the shadows of much bigger issues, love comes to be one of the biggest dangers that these coming-of-age characters have to face.

I have read many reviews about this book, most praising the work, but I also took the time to read reviews from those who were disappointed. It is a long read at a shade under 500 pages, and there are slow points, particularly in the beginning. However, you cannot fault the quality of the work produced and attention to detail. In terms of the finer detail of the writing style, I read and felt as if I had come across something similar to my own, and that was unusual. I have yet to read something that feels so familiar in its approach (I’m not suggesting I’m as good as Zafón!). The characters all have back stories and personalities of their own, each has a part to play, and in turn, Barcelona is filled with an vast mix of people, all from different walks of life, all connected by a single book from a library that nobody ever visits.

Given the time periods and the lives portrayed this book, it is easy to feel the author’s political leanings, or at least, for what he envisions for the characters. Fermín Romero de Torres once worked for Lluís Companys, the Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War, who is murdered and is seen as a martyr. Fermín is clearly a man who believes in the freedom of Catalonia, and Fumero, the blood-sucking officer who tortured him during the war, and now has murder in mind, is portrayed as a Franco loving right-wing fanatic (and a well-written one at that). However, anarchists, fascists and communists are all portrayed in a negative light, despite being vastly separate from one another on the political spectrum. There are references throughout the book, by multiple characters, that they hate Franco and fascist dictatorship, and that their lives have been harmed or destroyed by his reign, but they do not appear to be living in fear of him. There is no reference to the language spoken by the characters, which may be a by-product of the translation into English. The Catalan language was banned under Franco, so one might assume they spoke Castilian (traditional) Spanish, but perhaps not. We will never know.

Not only has Carlos Ruiz Zafón written a piece of art, but it has been translated in an excellent manner. There were certain things that I read and thought, ‘that’s not an expression that a Spaniard would use’, but it is what would be the best expression to use in a translation from the original, and as anyone who translates knows, literal translation would not make for an easy-to-read book. If you don’t have a keen understanding of Spain or the Spanish, you probably won’t notice this at all.

My rating for this book is 5/5. Lovers of 1950’s Spain will adore this, as will casual readers looking for a fine mystery.