Re­liv­ing the Span­ish civil war

Timeless Travels Magazine - - SPAIN -

Adrian Pole was in­vited to take part in a re-en­act­ment of a ma­jor bat­tle of the Span­ish Civil War in Tar­rag­ona, Cat­alo­nia. He found it opened up a side of his­tory that had been buried for a long time

Fran­cisco Franco may have won the Span­ish Civil War in 1939, but on a moun­tain­side in Cat­alo­nia the two sides are fac­ing each other from the trenches once again. On one side – the one on which I’m stand­ing – a re­pub­li­can of­fi­cer rushes back and forth nois­ily goad­ing his na­tion­al­ist ri­vals with cries of “putas de Franco!” and “viva la Repub­lica!”. Over on the other, I can spy the olive uni­forms and red berets of the Carlists, ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Catholics who were drawn to Franco’s quasi-cru­sade against Span­ish democ­racy. The Re­pub­li­can sol­diers all around me are des­per­ate to keep the ad­vanc­ing Na­tion­al­ists at bay. At least then their com­rades fur­ther along the line will have time to re­treat. They have held fast for forty-eight hours now, but the days of the Span­ish Re­pub­lic are num­bered.

The year is 2016 and I am at a re-en­act­ment of the in­fa­mous Bat­tle of the Ebro. As I look be­yond the op­pos­ing row of trenches and scan the hori­zon, I get the feel­ing that this steep, rocky cor­ner of Spain can hardly have changed since the war. Only the oc­ca­sional row of sleek new wind tur­bines re­minds me that my feet are still firmly on twenty first cen­tury soil. That, and the crowd of on­look­ers be­hind me. Some are tak­ing pho­tos on their smart phones, and oth­ers are film­ing the event to show their friends back home. Whole fam­i­lies have turned out to watch. There are even jour­nal­ists from the lo­cal pa­pers El Di­ario and

El Na­cional, not to men­tion the cam­eras of the re­gional tele­vi­sion net­work, TV3.

Within just a few min­utes, the bravado of the foul-mouthed of­fi­cer is eclipsed by the roar of the Na­tion­al­ist army as it clam­bers to­wards the Re­pub­li­can line. The en­trenched de­fend­ers fi­nally fall back, the ac­tors break up, and the re-

Even as I write... some 1,200 Civil War mass graves re­main to be un­cov­ered. Ever since fund­ing was cut un­der the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, re­spon­si­bil­ity for fi­nanc­ing and un­der­tak­ing re­cov­ery ef­forts has fallen squarely on the shoul­ders of fam­ily mem­bers

en­act­ment comes to a close. El Di­ario later re­ports that the event has been noth­ing less than an “éx­ito de público” – a pub­lic suc­cess.

When I first moved to Barcelona in the win­ter of 2016 I had no idea that Span­ish Civil War reen­act­ments even ex­isted, let alone drew au­di­ences and tele­vi­sion cam­eras. I had ar­rived to the Cata­lan cap­i­tal with my his­tory de­gree be­hind me, ea­gerly clutch­ing on to a copy of Or­well's Homage to

Cat­alo­nia and keen to plunge into the his­tory of a new coun­try. I had no rea­son to ex­pect that within a few months I'd be able to open a news­pa­per to see my­self dressed in a red neck­er­chief and green boiler suit fight­ing and fall­ing for the Span­ish Re­pub­lic.

I was first in­tro­duced to the un­ex­pected world of Spain's mil­i­tary re-en­act­ments by Alan War­ren. Alan is Barcelona’s very own English ex­pert on all things Span­ish Civil War and gives oc­ca­sional Or­well themed tours of the city. It was after one such tour that he told me he would be head­ing down to Tar­rag­ona to take part in the an­nual re­con­struc­tion of the Bat­tle of the Ebro. He thought I might be in­ter­ested in tag­ging along.

I was sur­prised. My im­pres­sion of Spain was of a coun­try re­luc­tant to con­front its own past. How else to ex­plain why Franco, the Gen­er­al­isimo him­self, con­tin­ued to rest un­der an enor­mous cru­ci­fix in a mega­lo­ma­niac mau­soleum known as the ‘Val­ley of the Fallen’? British his­to­rian Paul Pre­ston has writ­ten that his regime “still en­joys a rel­a­tively good press”. Even as I write in the sum­mer of 2018, some 1,200 Civil War mass graves re­main to be un­cov­ered. Ever since fund­ing was cut un­der the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, re­spon­si­bil­ity for fi­nanc­ing and un­der­tak­ing re­cov­ery ef­forts has fallen squarely on the shoul­ders of fam­ily mem­bers. Ac­claimed his­pani­cist Ian Gib­son, in­ter­viewed by the Span­ish daily El País in 2018, ad­mit­ted that it “pained” him to see that Spain was still “not at peace with it­self ”.

I was in­trigued by Alan’s in­vi­ta­tion. After a few days of thought I emailed him. I would go. A few weeks later I was on a train headed south for the fer­tile moun­tains of La Fatarella. As we left the sprawl of Barcelona be­hind us I be­gan to won­der what im­pres­sion I would make on the other par­tic­i­pants. Would I be scorned as noth­ing more than a nosy in­truder into Spain’s sen­si­tive past? I was sure there was enough of those al­ready.

My reser­va­tions were not un­founded. Not ev­ery­body has been re­cep­tive to the re-en­act­ments, not least be­cause, as one par­tic­i­pant would later tell me, “there are still many re­sent­ments on both sides.” Primera Línea, a group of Aragonese re-en­ac­tors that I would see in ac­tion later that day, ex­plained that some coun­cils have been hes­i­tant to col­lab­o­rate with them for fear of open­ing old wounds or ha­treds. Lau­rie Lee, the English author who crossed into Spain in the early days of the Span­ish Civil War, later at­tempted to ex­plain the na­ture of the con­flict in a BBC broad­cast for school­child­ren. “All war is ter­ri­ble, but a civil war – which is a sort of mur­der­ous fam­ily strug­gle on a large scale – is prob­a­bly the worst kind of all.” The hes­i­tancy of some to re­visit the era is un­der­stand­able.

My trep­i­da­tion eased off a lit­tle once I ar­rived in La Fatarella and shook hands with Daniel Wil­son. Like Alan and me, Daniel is an English­man pas­sion­ate about Span­ish his­tory. Un­like us, how­ever, his en­thu­si­asm stems from a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the Civil War. Daniel’s great un­cle had fought in the In­ter­na­tional Bri­gades. He was one of around 2,000 British vol­un­teers who signed up to fight in what they re­garded as a cru­cial front-line against the fas­cist threat to Europe, amongst whom was Lau­rie Lee. They took their mem­o­ries – and their de­feat – back home with them fol­low­ing Franco’s crush­ing vic­tory in 1939. “The his­tor­i­cal mem­ory [of the Span­ish Civil War] is def­i­nitely in­ter­na­tional”, Daniel later wrote to me. “The amount of vol­un­teers that fought in the in­ter­na­tional bri­gades is stag­ger­ing. Those bat­tal­ions re­ally were a cul­tural melt­ing pot”. Per­haps be­cause he comes from an out­sider per­spec­tive, Daniel is scathing of at­tempts to si­lence the past. Si­lence has achieved noth­ing, he says, “other than de­lay­ing the heal­ing and di­dac­tic process which is hope­fully fi­nally be­ing ap­proached and un­der­stood”.

I asked the coun­cil of La Fatarella, which has hosted the Ebro re-en­act­ments since 2012, if they

Younger Spaniards are also show­ing an un­ex­pected in­ter­est in their coun­try's past. Though at first glance Chris­tian Ro­driguez Alonso looks to be no older than my­self, his at­tire is more suited to our great grand­par­ent's gen­er­a­tion

are pleased about the in­ter­est for­eign­ers such as Daniel and I show in their events. “Yes”, they af­firmed, “to make bet­ter known the im­por­tance of the in­volve­ment of in­ter­na­tional vol­un­teers in favour of the re­pub­lic and against fas­cism”.

Younger Spaniards are also show­ing an un­ex­pected in­ter­est in their coun­try’s past. Though at first glance Chris­tian Ro­driguez Alonso looks to be no older than me, his at­tire is more suited to our great grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. A pair of cir­cu­lar spec­ta­cles perch pre­car­i­ously atop his nose, im­me­di­ately bring­ing to mind an ex­iled Trot­sky. Be­neath is a metic­u­lously waxed mous­tache. Chris­tian be­longs to the Twit­ter gen­er­a­tion but he lives and breathes the 1930s, telling me, with a touch of un­der­state­ment, that he likes the decade “quite a lot”. He finds him­self drawn to the era be­cause of “its fash­ion, cars, in­dus­trial in­no­va­tion…but above all the so­cial rev­o­lu­tion that moved the Span­ish Civil War”. His for­mal in­duc­tion into the re-en­act­ment com­mu­nity came a few years ago when he ap­peared as an ex­tra in a film about the Civil War. Some of the peo­ple on set were so im­pressed by his out­fit that they in­vited him along to an im­pend­ing bat­tle. “That was my first and clos­est ex­pe­ri­ence with the Span­ish Civil War”, he claims.

In their in­ter­views with the lo­cal press, the or­gan­is­ers of the re-en­act­ment made it very clear that they re­gard the at­ten­dance of young peo­ple as an enor­mous source of en­cour­age­ment. Be­hind the trenches a replica mil­i­tary camp had been set up and it proved to be a real draw for on­look­ers and an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity for them to learn about an im­por­tant mo­ment in their his­tory. This is pre­cisely the aim of the events ac­cord­ing to the spokesman for one group of par­tic­i­pants – “to of­fer a new way of teach­ing his­tory, in a more di­rect man­ner.” Chris­tian is pleased that the lo­cal coun­cils and the press re­act pos­i­tively, but is above all en­cour­aged by the in­ter­est shown by the gen­eral pub­lic who ap­proach him to ask ques­tions about the uni­forms worn by the re-en­ac­tors and the roles they play. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant since, in his ex­pe­ri­ence, “in schools, most of the time, the Span­ish Civil War has not been ex­plained prop­erly or even ex­plained at all.” He laments that the di­verse Re­pub­li­can forces have of­ten been lumped to­gether as just ‘ro­jos’ – reds.

Chief amongst the var­i­ous groups re­spon­si­ble for putting on the event each year is the Lo Riu as­so­ci­a­tion. I asked them what ef­fect, if any, they thought the re-en­act­ments have had. They claim that “at first, peo­ple be­lieved there was not so much his­tory about to get lost. Now there are

When they speak of ''his­tory about to get lost'', they are re­fer­ring to the im­mense quan­tity of Civil War re­mains – trenches, bunkers and the like – left be­hind by the Bat­tle which was fought here by a quar­ter of a mil­lion men for 113 days in late 1938

peo­ple who help us and col­lab­o­rate”. Is any­one in­ter­ested in the Civil War to­day? “Yes. There is more and more in­ter­est, and es­pe­cially amongst young peo­ple – this is the most im­por­tant thing”. Lo Riu was born in 2007 when a group of am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans came to­gether with a com­mon in­ter­est in pre­serv­ing the pat­ri­mo­nial re­mains of their lo­cal area, known in Cata­lan as the Ter­res de l’Ebre, or lands of the Ebro river. When they speak of ‘his­tory about to get lost’, they are re­fer­ring to the im­mense quan­tity of Civil War re­mains – trenches, bunkers and the like – left be­hind by the Bat­tle which was fought here by a quar­ter of a mil­lion men for 113 days in late 1938.

The mem­bers of Lo Riu are mo­ti­vated by a shared sense of frus­tra­tion that so far too lit­tle has been done to look after this ex­tra­or­di­nary her­itage, and have worked with col­lab­o­ra­tors such as the Uni­ver­sity of Barcelona to cor­rect the sit­u­a­tion. A spe­cific source of anger is lo­cal gov­ern­ment. “The re­ac­tion of city coun­cils and the Gen­er­al­i­tat [the au­ton­o­mous gov­ern­ment of Cat­alo­nia] is the same as when we started. They’re not in­ter­ested in his­tor­i­cal mat­ters at all...we have the par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple of the wind tur­bines that they have put ev­ery­where which could have been a nat­u­ral mu­seum of the Bat­tle of the Ebro”. I asked Alan about the wind tur­bines as we passed them on the way back to Barcelona later in the day. He ex­plained that it’s “com­mon knowl­edge” in the area that when their foun­da­tions were first dug the builders stum­bled upon un­con­firmed num­bers of bod­ies left be­hind by the bat­tle. Though hor­ri­fy­ing, the facts were not nec­es­sar­ily sur­pris­ing. Six years ear­lier El País had re­ported that the dis­cov­ery of bod­ies by farm­ers in the vicin­ity had be­come “rou­tine”. De­spite Lo Riu’s frus­tra­tions that the gov­ern­ment has ne­glected lo­cal her­itage, the Gen­er­al­i­tat takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for “dig­ni­fy­ing, sign­ing, and re­cov­er­ing” the bod­ies found in the area.

It’s there­fore clear that for those who dig deeper into the his­tory of La Fatarella, or in­deed dig at all, the ‘nat­u­ral mu­seum of the Ebro’ al­ready ex­ists, al­beit un­of­fi­cially. Its self-ap­pointed cu­ra­tors can be found in the nearby town of Fayón. Though few tourists know of its ex­is­tence, this unas­sum­ing lit­tle town houses a re­mark­able mu­seum which may in fact dis­play the largest col­lec­tion of Span­ish Civil War-re­lated ma­te­rial in the world. The own­ers ex­hibit just a frag­ment of what has been found in the sur­round­ing hills.

Vis­it­ing the mu­seum, I saw heaps of rusty shrap­nel peer­ing through glass cab­i­nets, heavy ar­tillery sta­tioned in the corners of the room, and even a tank which has been fully re­stored, com­plete with a new en­gine. Im­me­di­ately after the war, ac­cord­ing to British his­to­rian Paul Pre­ston, Re­pub­li­can pris­on­ers were forced to col­lect a stag­ger­ing 75,000 tons of war ma­te­rial ly­ing around the area, which he has la­belled a ‘mas­sive ceme­tery’. What they didn’t col­lect con­tin­ues turn­ing up to­day. As well as ex­ca­vat­ing im­por­tant Civil War sites, Lo Riu has as­sumed the equally dif­fi­cult task of rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness about the im­por­tance of their ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work in the area.

I asked Primera Línea if they too feel that the Civil War mat­ters in to­day’s Spain. “Ev­ery day it’s in the pa­pers, on the tele­vi­sion” they ex­plained, “but much re­mains to be un­der­stood about top­ics based on an ig­no­rance, that so many years of si­lence about the war has pro­voked. That’s where we must come in, with­out mak­ing po­lit­i­cal judge­ments, lim­it­ing our­selves to only mak­ing the

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.