Reliving the Spanish civil war
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