What Happened to the Spanish Civil War?

When you walk through the Catalun Musë–the Catalonia Museum near the harbor in Gaudy’s Barcelona and get to the end of all the exhibits, it occurs to you that something is missing—like the Spanish Civil War.

And you wonder why.

The rest of the exhibits are comprehensive. The building is lovely, and you look can look out over the Mediterranean. We took an elevator to the top floor and began walking through endless display rooms. This was not as hard as you might think because the floor is always slightly sloped and, like the steps of a circular stairway, the rooms spiral down to the bottom of the museum—a brilliant idea for the museum-weary.

We learn about the earliest peoples who lived in the Barcelona area, spread across the two river systems Besòs and Llobregat. We re-lived the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, hunting, cultivation, Greek colonies, Roman rule, Roman vineyards, and the Goths. Somewhere along the way, Hannibal rides elephants toward Rome, and then there is the 700-year Arab and Moorish presence. Which made me wonder briefly about the likely longevity of the Anglo-etc. presence in the great Native American continent.
I found it fascinating that the idea of irrigation came from the Muslims. Or that they introduced (to what is now Spain) lettuce, cabbage, radishes, eggplant, carrots, pomegranates, melons, watermelons, red figs, grapes, oranges, lemons, cucumbers, garlic, rice, sugar cane, wheat, cotton, paper, the idea of universal education, libraries, lit streets, religious tolerance, banking, medicine, astrology, astronomy, pharmacology, psychology, physics, physiology, zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, optics, chemistry, mathematics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, meteorology, geography, mechanics, navigation, and history.

There were universities. We got the Arabic number system and the concept of zero from them. They gave us harmony, the keyboard, the guitar, and the flute (although I thought the Greek god Pan invented that.) Their concept of optics led to the application of idea of perspective in painting. Modern Spanish still uses many Arabic words. The new invaders–the Christians–translated all of this over time, and we got the Enlightenment.

All of this impressed me immensely. It is not quite the image we get of Muslims in my former place of residence, just north of the Mexican border.

Back in Spain, the Christians turned on the Muslims and Jews and either killed them or drove them into exile. There was no mention of the Inquisition. The monarchies send ship west and discovered peoples who had already discovered themselves, in the New World. Grammarians try to establish a “high” Spanish. The Catalonians (Barcelona) refined their own language. The monarchies eventually conquered the Catalonians, but not their language.

There were many different subcultures in Catalonia. They were people who dwelt in the nooks and crannies got tired of war, and drifted toward what is now Barcelona, joined in its commerce, trading, and shipping. A portion of the population gradually began to oppose the social, economic, and political structure presumed by the monarchists. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century are a bit of a blur: wars, wigs, and kings. An anarchist tradition appeared: worker organizations, socialism, communism, agitation to defend workers’ rights against abuse by the big industrialists, big landowners, and the Church. And the counter-reaction by the latter.

I see reference to First World War, the Weimar Republic, Picasso. We are almost on the ground floor of the museum. I know there was a Republican Democracy in Spain, but then also the rebellion by certain generals against the same democratic republic, followed by a brutal Civil War July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939. But I’ve seen no mention of it.

The year I was born, German Stukas (Stuka from Sturzkampfflugzeug, dive bomber) dive bombed Guernica, and Picasso does his famous painting of it.

I wonder whether I should sneer a little at Hemingway for romanticizing of the Spanish Civil War, but then I read that the Franco-ists took him very seriously and tried to block the U.S. publication of his books and the filming of movies based on them.

Blood flows, executions abound on both sides. The generals are the victors, the losers– 465,000 of them, thirty-five percent of them from the Catalan provinces alone, including a mass exodus from Barcelona (we are walking through a Barcelona museum) flee through three or four gaps in the Pyrenees to France, to be un-welcomed by French economic hard times, xenophobia, and a fascist government. Those who didn’t make it across the border and were political leaders were in trouble.

But we are on the ground floor by now. I ask the front desk, in Mexican Spanish, with my apparently Guatemalan accent, “Isn’t there anything about the Civil War?”

We are directed to a very small room on that floor, where there are some photographs on a wall–perhaps ten of them. A video is running. We sit down to watch. We see men, women, and children, on foot, in trucks, on horses and mules. We see armored cars, regular and irregular soldiers with their shoulders slouched or thrown back trying to look proud, as they pass, as if in review, the lines of French gendarmes. As they pass, the Spanish fighters throw their weapons onto piles of other weapons. There is a place for ammunition and grenades alone, another just for pistols–and a last one for machine guns.

It is cold. Everyone is tightly wrapped, if they are lucky. It is gray and bleak. The faces show hope and relief. I knew from elsewhere they were then marched to camps in open fields with barbed wire and no shelter–with soldiers separated from their families. They suffered from malnutrition, bad water, dysentery, cholera and starvation. The film doesn’t show that.

France doesn’t want them. Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Dominican Republic are the only countries that will accept them–but in small numbers. Plus, there is little money for transportation and settlement. In the end, only something like 30,000 make it to Americas.

Conditions are so bad in the camp, some 268,000 people return to Franco’s Spain. By the end of 1944, 162,000 are still in France. 47,000 appear to be unaccounted for–perhaps the victims of starvation and disease.

The men who stayed were offered no good choices. They could serve in various work, support, and fighting brigades–or be returned to Spain. Those who refused were treated like prisoners. Activists were treated like prisoners anyway. Later, after the fall of France at the beginning of WWII, some join the Marquis, the French underground, to fight the Germans in Vichy France. Spanish Civil War fighters and leaders captured by the Germans were sent directly to German death camps.

If you were a high school or college student and had no background, and watched the ten-minute video in the small room at the museum, you would not understand why these people were fleeing their country.

And so, the question arises: Why, at this museum, was so much left out? Is it a matter of whose history shall be the official history?

I walked into the gift shop. I approached an intelligent looking young man. I asked him the question. I asked him what it meant–this invisible portion of their history. He asked me whether I had seen the exhibit. He pointed to the little room. I said I had. I asked the question in different ways. A young woman, also a store employee, joined us and listened in. I ask them whether it meant there were conditions that discouraged a larger treatment of one of the most painful events in Spain’s past.

I could tell by the way they were looking at me that my status had changed from tourist to somebody knocking on the door of their history.

The young man gave me an ironic smile. And as if it all just happened, he said, “You know the victors write the history.”

I said I knew that. But wasn’t there something not from their side? They brought out books. The victors’ intellectuals had recently written a history from a conservative point of view. The losers’ intellectuals had recently answered with their own thick volume. I wanted to buy the latter, but it was too heavy and I didn’t want any more weight.

He handed me a paperback. “This a novel about a Franco-ist (victors, fascist, dictator) intellectual who escaped a Republican (losers, democratic, left) firing squad during the last days of the war. A soldier from a Republican search party finds the escapee half-hidden in mud and leaves, but instead of shooting him, turns and walks away.”

I said I didn’t want to read something from the fascist point of view. He said, “This is not from a this or a that point of view. It is the book you want to read.”

From the way he said it–with intelligence and focus, and something in his voice–and because it was light, I bought it.

It is the book I recommend you read before you walk into the little room on the ground floor at the magnificent Catalonia Museum–in Gaudy’s Barcelona. Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Bloombury Press, 2004.

In a review, Susan Sontag writes, “With irresistible directness and delicacy, Javier Cercas engages in a quick-witted, tender quest for truth and the possibility of reconciliation in history, in our everyday lives—which happens to be the theme of most great European fiction. He has a fascinating tale to tell, which happens (mostly) to be true. He has written a marvelous novel.”

In all fairness, there is another museum which treats this period of Spain’s history. I did not have time to visit it. The Museu Memorial de L’Exili is located near the border with France, at La Jonquera. It is very modern structure, well laid out and, I think, comprehensive–with unrestrained concern for examining and remembering the catastrophic exodus of 1939. I do not know whether its texts are only in Catalan, but if you know Spanish you will be able to figure it out.

One further point: there were deadly struggles within the Republican (democratic) ranks. Stalin sent GPU (secret police) and other forces to support the anti-fascists but at the same to murder non-Stalinists who were thought to be too revolutionary in the sense of pro-worker and for land reform. Also targets were internationals who associated with these activists, among whom was one George Orwell. To appease Hitler, Stalin secretly ordered the International Brigade out of Spain, thus sealing the fate of the Republic and its supporters, resulting in the fascist victory and the mass exodus. For more I recommend http://www.critiquejournal.net/spain32.pdf

I recommend William Herrick’s autobiography “Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical,” University of Wisconsin Press, for an understanding of the destructive role of Stalinist Communists in the Spanish Civil War. Very good reading

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