This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 23 and 24: 19 – 31 December 1936

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love

John Cornford, English volunteer killed one day after his 21st birthday.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – a round-up to the end of the first deadly year. Week 23 and 24: 19 – 31 December 1936

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December 20

The Nationalist Aceituna Offensive through Andalusia in Spain’s south continues –

The Nationalist troops are controlling small towns throughout southern Spain. Around 4,000 men, all Moroccan soldiers and Spanish troops, take the town of Bujalance, right in the centre of southern Spain, near Córdoba.

The Nationalists are still trying to occupy the town of Boadilla del Monte, in constant battle with the XII and XIV International Brigades, just outside Madrid. General Orgaz Yoldi leading the Nationalist troops decides to end the stalemate and retreats, leaving the Corunna Road into Madrid again in Republican hands.

December 22

The same troops who occupied Bujalance move on to take control of the nearby towns of Pedro Abad and Villafranca de Córdoba. This leads the Republicans to set up the new Army of the South under General Fernando Martínez-Monje Restoy, with International Brigades dispatched to the Córdoba front.

Thousands of Italian volunteers arrive in Nationalist-held Cádiz, ready to help the Nationalists’ hold on the south of Spain.

International Brigades in December 1936

24 December

Some 600 men of the 9th company of the XIV International Brigade battle Nationalist troops at the town of Villa del Rio in Córdoba, and 400 volunteer men are killed. The remaining men move on to the nearby town of Montoro.

December 25

Thousands of Spanish fighters and international volunteers spend  Christmas  in trenches. The country is awash with refugees fleeing continuous violence all over the nation and hide through the Christmas period in refugee camps or in subway stations, many in bitter conditions.

Nationalist troops take the town of Montoro, after fighting off and killing many left from the 9th company of the XIV International Brigades.

Christmas being ‘celebrated’ on the Basque front

27 December

The two-day Battle of Lopera begins. The tiny town in the Jaén province sees the XIV International Brigades attack to take control of the area. The initial attack fails and 300 of the 3,000 initial force are quickly killed, another 600 seriously wounded. General Walter’s men have not had time to be trained in Albacete and have no communication and no air or ground support. Still, they battle the 4,000 Nationalists who have machine guns and other artillery.  Fighting continues for 36 hours before the International Brigades are forced to retreat, after gaining no ground, though 200 Nationalists are killed.

The English 10th battalion of the XIV International Brigades lose 78 of their 145 men, including Ralph Winston Fox, a British journalist, novelist and historian, famous for writing the biography of Genghis Khan. Also among the dead is poet John Cornford, great-grandson of Charles Darwin and well-known communist, just a day after he turns 21. The bodies of the volunteers still remain buried on the lonely hillside where they died.

John Cornford

The French Marseillaise 12th battalion of the Brigade have their commander, Major Gaston Delasalle, detained by André Marty, the Political Commissar of the International Brigades, and leading man in the French Communist Party. Marty accuses Delasalle of gross incompetence, resulting in the decimation of his men. Without evidence, Delasalle is also accused of being a fascist spy and of cowardice during battle. Marty arranges a quick court-martial and Delasalle is executed by firing squad. While no one speaks in Delasalle’s defence, Marty has many afraid of him and his ‘mentally sick’ behaviour, though he is regarded by most as a hero and revolutionary.

30 December

General Orgaz Yoldi receives reinforcements after the battle of Boadilla del Monte a week earlier, and readies another attack, which will become known as Battle of the Fog in early January. During this period, the Republican and the International Brigades are trying to regroup after heavy losses, and have little in the way of help.

Author George Orwell enlists himself in a Republican POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia to fight against fascism.

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POUM training in December

31 December

The town of Pocuna, of around 5,000 people, isolated 50km from Córdoba and 40km from Jaén, is taken by the Nationalists. Due to taking this prime location in the olive-growing region, they are able to slow their advance for a quick break as the Republicans are overwhelmingly losing the region.

Famous Spanish writer and professor Miguel de Unamuno dies at home in  Salamanca, where he has been under house arrest for speaking against Franco at Salamanca University months earlier. Both of his sons, Fernando and Ramón de Unamuno, instantly sign up to fight the fascists.

Miguel de Unamuno’s being taken from the university, where he was arrested. It was his final public outing

From January 1, posts will return to weekly.

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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.

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 1: Non-fiction

After five years of the shaky Second Spanish Republic, on July 18 1936, a military coup started the Spanish Civil War. Lasting three years, and the bad guys eventually winning, not to mention being a WWII rehearsal, there is no shortage of books on the subject. Often called democracy vs. fascism, though in fact more right-wing and religious vs. left-wing freedoms, the Spanish Civil War is one of, if not the, most complex social battle ever fought. Overshadowed by WWII, which broke out in its immediate aftermath, the Spanish Civil War has lived on in Spain, first through a bloody dictatorship,  the lifestyle, laws, art and the brave hearts of those who lived through the Franco reign of terror. It is no easy subject to get started on for those looking to understand all the sides involved and what atrocities were committed, how Hitler and Mussolini gained so much power and how the western world sat idly on its hands. Volunteers from around the world flooded in, often defying their own government to do so (go intrepid New Zealanders!) and brother turned against brother in a fierce battle that still has victims being found today.

Here are some of my favourite non-fiction books on the subject, in no particular order. This is by far not a comprehensive list, otherwise it would have to include every single book Paul Preston ever wrote. I will do Spanish Civil War fiction in Part 2.

All cover art and blurb are via their amazon links

THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN by Antony Beevor

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war-its causes, course, and consequences.

This book is outstanding in terms of its depth and detail. A priceless timeline of information and with everything any reader could need when looking for the whole, complex picture.

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Helen Graham

Amid the many catastrophes of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War continues to exert a particular fascination among history buffs and the lay-reader alike. This Very Short Introduction integrates the political, social and cultural history of the Spanish Civil War. It sets out the domestic and international context of the war for a general readership. In addition to tracing the course of war, the book locates the war’s origins in the cumulative social and cultural anxieties provoked by a process of rapid, uneven and accelerating modernism taking place all over Europe. This shared context is key to the continued sense of the war’s importance. The book also examines the myriad of political polemics to which the war has given rise, as well as all of the latest historical debates. It assesses the impact of the war on Spain’s transition to democracy and on the country’s contemporary political culture.

While this book is short, it covers all the major players without getting too complicated. Read my review here

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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE OF THE SPANISH REPUBLIC: A WITNESS TO THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Henry Buckley

In 1940, The Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Buckley published his eyewitness account of his experiences reporting from the Spanish Civil War. The copies of the book, stored in a warehouse in London, were destroyed during the Blitz and only a handful of copies of his unique chronicle were saved. Now, 70 years after its first publication, this exceptional eyewitness account of the war is republished with a new introduction by Paul Preston. The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is a unique account of Spanish politics throughout the entire life of the Second Republic, combining personal recollections of meetings with the great politicians of the day with eyewitness accounts of dramatic events. This important book is one of the most enduring records of the Spanish Republic and the civil war and a monumental testimony to Buckley’s work as a correspondent.

This manuscript was a truly precious find and a raw personal insight. So many great names are included in a truly rare observation into the battle. 

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HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

George Orwell went to Spain in late 1936, in his role as a journalist, but then, pretty inevitably, put down his pen and spent the next year fighting with the P.O.U.M (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) Militia against the Fascist forces under Francisco Franco. Homage to Catalonia, written immediately after his return and published in 1938, tells the story of his military service with the POUM, both against the Right and the Left, and, in quick succession, of his initial hopes for the classless society that he thought he had found on first arrival, then of his disappointment with the level of disorganization of the Leftist forces and finally of his disillusionment when pro~Stalinist “allies” began attacking Socialists and Anarchists who refused to toe the Soviet line. Orwell, who by then had nearly been killed when shot through the neck in battle, and his wife were ultimately forced to flee from Spain, to avoid Stalinist security forces, which had labeled him pro~fascist.

No one can question George Orwell’s commitment to the war and his understanding of the state of Spain. His first-hand account of Barcelona’s collapse before the enemy even arrived is such a big part of the war.

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THE ASSASSINATION OF FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA by Ian Gibson

At dawn on the 19th of August 1936 Spaniards murdered the man who most profoundly embodied the poetic spirit of their country. Federico Garcia Lorca was the victim of the passions that arose in Spain as the Church, the military and the bourgeoisie embarked on their reckless and brutal repression of “undesirables”. For Lorca was not a political man; he embraced Spain – from its struggling leftist movement to its most conservative traditions – with a love that transcended politics. His “crime” was his antipathy to pomposity, conformity and intolerance. For years the Spanish government suppressed the truth about Lorca’s death. In this recreation of the assassination, Ian Gibson re-dresses the wrong. Based on information only recently made available, this is an illumination not only of the death of a great poet, but of the atmosphere of Civil War Spain that allowed it to happen.

The killing of Lorca drowned out one of Spain’s greatest lights. A true tragedy for many reasons. An insight to how non-conformists were treated. 

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Hugo Thomas

Since its first publication, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War has become established as the definitive one-volume history of a conflict that continues to provoke intense controversy today. What was it that roused left-wing sympathizers from all over the world to fight against Franco between 1936 and 1939? Why did the British and US governments refuse to intervene? And why did the Republican cause collapse so violently? Now revised and updated, Hugh Thomas’s classic account presents the most objective and unbiased analysis of a passionate struggle where fascism and democracy, communism and Catholicism were at stake – and which was as much an international war as a Spanish one.

To understand the war, the international soldiers and forces are as important as Spanish desires. Understanding the collapse of the Republicans is just as frenzied as them battling the enemy. It is hard to ind unbiased opinions on the war. 

SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS by Adam Hochschild

From the acclaimed, best-selling author Adam Hochschild, a sweeping history of the Spanish Civil War, told through a dozen characters, including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell: a tale of idealism, heartbreaking suffering, and a noble cause that failed

For three crucial years in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War dominated headlines in America and around the world, as volunteers flooded to Spain to help its democratic government fight off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Today we’re accustomed to remembering the war through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Robert Capa’s photographs. But Adam Hochschild has discovered some less familiar yet far more compelling characters who reveal the full tragedy and importance of the war: a fiery nineteen-year-old Kentucky woman who went to wartime Spain on her honeymoon, a Swarthmore College senior who was the first American casualty in the battle for Madrid, a pair of fiercely partisan, rivalrous New York Times reporters who covered the war from opposites sides, and a swashbuckling Texas oilman with Nazi sympathies who sold Franco almost all his oil — at reduced prices, and on credit.

It was in many ways the opening battle of World War II, and we still have much to learn from it. Spain in Our Hearts is Adam Hochschild at his very best.
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This book is currently a #1 bestseller. A new release and a terrific American perspective, just some of many American stories to be told. Read my review here

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A CONCISE HISTORY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Paul Preston

An account of the Spanish civil war which portrays the struggles of the war, as well as discussing the wider implications of the revolution in the Republican zone, the emergence of brutal dictatorship on the nationalist side and the extent to which the Spanish war prefigured World War II.

No war in modern times has inflamed the passions of both ordinary people and intellectuals in the way that the conflict in Spain in 1936 did. The Spanish Civil War is burned into European consciousness, not simply because it prefigured the much larger world war that followed it, but because the intense manner of its prosecution was a harbinger of a new and horrific form of warfare that was universally dreaded. At the same time, the hopes awakened by the attempted social revolution in republican Spain chimed with the aspirations of many in Europe and the United States during the grim years of the great Depression.

‘The Concise History of the Spanish Civil War’ is a full-blooded account of this pivotal period in the twentieth-century European history. Paul Preston vividly recounts the struggles of the war, analyses the wider implications of the revolution in the Republican zone, tracks the emergence of Francisco Franco’s brutal (and, ultimately, extraordinarily durable) fascist dictatorship and assesses the way in which the Spanish Civil War was a portent of the Second World War that ensued so rapidly after it.

No one understands the war like Paul Preston. He has many volumes on the subject, each with a different perspective, to fully grasp all aspects of the battle. His Franco biography covers much of the war from the angle of the man who caused so much pain. Other books cover journalists in the war, others about volunteers, others about fascism and communism. Paul Preston covers it all. Here are just a couple I recommend.

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: REACTION, REVOLUTION, AND REVENGE by Paul Preston

The definitive work on the Spanish Civil War, a classic of modern historical scholarship and a masterful narrative.

Paul Preston is the world’s foremost historian of Spain. This surging history recounts the struggles of the 1936 war in which more than 3,000 Americans took up arms. Tracking the emergence of Francisco Franco’s brutal (and, ultimately, extraordinarily durable) fascist dictatorship, Preston assesses the ways in which the Spanish Civil War presaged the Second World War that ensued so rapidly after it.

The attempted social revolution in Spain awakened progressive hopes during the Depression, but the conflict quickly escalated into a new and horrific form of warfare. As Preston shows, the unprecedented levels of brutality were burned into the American consciousness as never before by the revolutionary war reporting of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Herbert Matthews, Vincent Sheean, Louis Fischer, and many others. Completely revised, including previously unseen material on Franco’s treatment of women in wartime prisons, The Spanish Civil War is a classic work on this pivotal epoch in the twentieth century.

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DEFENCE OF MADRID by Geoffrey Cox

Goodies and baddies take some sorting out in this tale of the siege of Madrid by Franco’s right-wing forces supported by the Nazis and the fascist regime of Mussolini (the ‘rebels’), against the civilian population and its government representatives, just elected, who happened to be left-wing. Once sorted, Cox’s account of the city under attack, in one of the twentieth century’s first urban wars, has all too many echoes today. This new edition, with an introduction and selection of historical photographs, as well as samples of Cox’s journalism from the front, will confirm its position as one of the classics of twentieth-century reportage. It is being published for the 70th anniversary of the event.

Geoffrey Cox was a New Zealander who published his early experience of the war in Madrid. It’s tough to beat a first-hand account.  Read my review here

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Succinct and elegant, this is the classic depiction of the bloody, catastrophic, “brother against brother” war that brought the fascist Franco regime to power. It brilliantly illuminates the conflict’s causes and drama: the class and regional disparities in Spanish society; the pitiful weaknesses of the political parties battling Franco; and the way Spain became a battleground of international forces. “…a superlative command of a wide range of sources, economy of style…a sharp eye for obscure but significant detail, an awareness of cultural nuance, a firsthand acquaintance with the country and its people.”
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Raymond Carr was an incredible writer who was able to explain the war on a personal level. I recommend all his books on the topic.
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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Stanley Payne
This book presents an original new history of the most important conflict in European affairs during the 1930s, prior to the events that produced World War II – the Spanish Civil War. It describes the complex origins of the conflict, the collapse of the Spanish Republic, and the outbreak of the only mass worker revolution in the history of Western Europe. Stanley Payne explains the character of the Spanish revolution and the complex web of republican politics, while also examining in detail the development of Franco’s counterrevolutionary dictatorship. Payne gives attention to the multiple meanings and interpretations of war and examines why the conflict provoked such strong reactions in its own time, and long after. The book also explains the military history of the war and its place in the history of military development, the non-intervention policy of the democracies, and the role of German, Italian, and Soviet intervention, concluding with an analysis of the place of the war in European affairs and in comparative perspective of revolutionary civil wars of the twentieth century.
With so many sides fighting the battle, one opinion is never enough. Stanley Payne gives readers a chance to read the battle from multiple angles.

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UNLIKELY WARRIORS by Richard Baxell

When a Nationalist military uprising was launched in Spain in July 1936, the Spanish Republic’s desperate pleas for assistance from the leaders of Britain and France fell on deaf ears. Appalled at the prospect of another European democracy succumbing to fascism, volunteers from across the Continent and beyond flocked to Spain’s aid, many to join the International Brigades. More than 2,500 of these men and women came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, and contrary to popular myth theirs was not an army of adventurers, poets and public school idealists. Overwhelmingly they hailed from modest working class backgrounds, leaving behind their livelihoods and their families to fight in a brutal civil war on foreign soil. Some 500 of them never returned home. In this inspiring and moving oral history, Richard Baxell weaves together a diverse array of testimony to tell the remarkable story of the Britons who took up arms against General Franco. Drawing on the author’s own extensive interviews with survivors, research in archives across Britain, Spain and Russia, as well as first-hand accounts by writers both famous and unknown, Unlikely Warriors presents a startling new interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and follows a band of ordinary men and women who made an extraordinary choice.

This book gives an insight to British and Commonwealth volunteers who made a massive contribution to the Republican side of the war, in a way never seen before or since. Read my review here

51JYS5mX-dLFORGOTTEN PLACES: BARCELONA AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Nick Lloyd

A guide to Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, beginning in the 19th century with the conditions and movements which led to the revolution of 1936, and ending with the fall of the city on 26th January 1939 when Franco’s tanks drove down the Diagonal and set about destroying everything the Republic had built. Stories from the aftermath of the war, the exile and the Franco regime are also included.
In addition with dealing with the more obvious themes such as anarchism, the Spanish Republic, Catalonia, George Orwell, the aerial bombing, and the May Days, etc, the book also looks at themes such as the Zoo during the Civil War, the American Sixth Fleet in the city, Barça, urbanism, Nazis in Barcelona, Robert Capa, the Spanish in the Holocaust, poster art…

Intertwined in the text are contemporary quotes and a few personal stories of people I have met who experienced the war or its aftermath. There are also biographies of characters such as Andreu Nin and Lluís Companys.

This new release is written by Barcelona’s most knowledge and committed Spanish Civil War tour guide, who is also looking to open a SCW museum. Read my review here

Tomorrow in part 2, I will recommend my favourite SCW fiction.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘1984 and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read

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In 1937, George Orwell spent six months in Catalonia, witnessing the rise and fall of the popular revolution on the streets of Barcelona and Catalonia. Alone amongst his contemporaries, Orwell understood what the success or failure of that Spanish Revolution would mean for the rest of the world. The lessons he learnt, were explained in the three books he wrote upon his return.

1984 And The Spanish Civil War – the 2nd book in the ‘Forgotten Spain Series’ – tells the story of Orwell’s relationship with Spain and the legacy he has left us:

*How far was ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ the inevitable conclusion to all Orwell had witnessed in those brief months he spent in Spain?
*Why was his work so unanimously rejected by his contemporaries in England?
*Was the revolution Orwell witnessed in Barcelona crushed forever by the end of the war, or did it slide into hibernation, awaiting the present conditions for revival?

If you want to understand Spain today, you need to understand Orwell. If you wish to understand the work of Orwell, you need to understand the history of Spain in 1937.

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1984 and the Spanish Civil War is the second book in Paul Read’s Forgotten Stories from Spain series. George Orwell, now synonymous with ‘privacy, procedure and responsibility’ has much to thank from his time in Spain in regards to his greatest works. His theory on the ‘thought police’ , of big brother and their CCTV cameras are part of common culture, and he was the man who gave a face to big corporates and hierarchies that control the populace. While the reclusive Orwell (real name Eric Blair) died aged just 46, his work lives on.

His work, Homage to Catalonia, is the best piece of work that embodies the Spanish Civil War from a personal point of view, by a man who didn’t fall for ideals of either side of the fight, and dared to stand up and question Spain’s situation. With suspicion from the right and criticism from the left, he was able to produce three of his great works – Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984.

Between 30-35,000 people joined the civil war as volunteers, the International Brigades, organised mostly by the Communist Party, but Orwell slipped into Spain through a Marxist militia and fought for the POUM, which would eventually be his downfall in Spain. He was able to assess the different sides of the left in the war – Socialists, Anarchists, Communists, Republicans, Basques, Catalonians and the big unions in Barcelona, the UGT and CNT. 1984 and the Spanish Civil War is a great way to understand why Orwell came to the conclusions he did, what he faced in his desire to fight and come to grips with Spain unlike anyone before him. The book also details what Orwell and his wife went through in escaping Spain.

1984 and Spanish Civil War discusses how criticism of Homage to Catalonia led Orwell to use satire in writing both Animal Farm and 1984 to relate his ideals and knowledge. In learning how power can destroy ideals and morals, and seeing the left coalition the civil war collapse under ‘folding lies’, fighting for something to save face rather than believing in the facts, Orwell was able to produce these stunning works.

The book also goes on to talk about how, in many ways, Spain has not changed. In these times of austerity, many of the original ideas that spurred the civil war have come alive again: the left wing and anarchism in its root form – with the indignados, occupation movements, desahucios (evictions and related occupations) and also escrache, calling people to account in public settings (humiliation protests if you will). Orwell may be proud that some of his ideas are alive and in practice today, who knows.

Paul Read has written an excellent book on the subject of Orwell and the effect of the war on the Englishman. 1984 and the Spanish Civil War is insightful, well-researched and written in a smooth, satisfying pace, giving out so many details, and informing the reader on many certitudes that they may not have known. A highly recommended book.

See book one in the series – Forgotten Stories from Spain: The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War

See more from Paul Read on Speaking of Spain

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!