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« A Hazard of New York | Main | Norway During World War II »

Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War

Initial leftist protests in Barcelona, 1936On a blazing hot day in July, 1936, some of the opening shots of the what could become the Spanish Civil War were fired in Barcelona. While the rest of the country was already in severe unrest over the sacking of General Franco from the government and the strife between the Republicans (who supported the crown and the old guard) and the Nationalists (mostly fascists with ties to the Nazis, who lionized the cruel Franco), Barcelona and the Catalan province were a world apart--as they always are. Their struggle made allies of would-be foes in the rest of the country--and presented striking examples of the sorts of high-flown idealism and brass-knuckle pragmatics that so quickly fuse and morph into genocide.

In the end, the Spanish Civil War was an extremely bloody conflict. Just under 400,000 Spaniards lost their lives in the fighting, show trials, and gang-style killings; another 100,000 or so were "disappeared" in subsequent years under Franco's regime. The war split the country into factions that are still present today--although many of those national factions were strangely only minor players in the opening weeks of the war in Barcelona.

Back then, the city was divided into two economic--and geographic--strata: the poor, gathered in neighborhoors on either side of Las Ramblas (a.k.a. La Rambla), one of the main thoroughfares from the port; and the well-to-do, ensconced in mansions up the hill in Tibidabo. No neighborhood was so ripe for conflict, so loaded with the poor, and such a powder keg of leftist idealism as Raval, one of the most tightly packed slums in town. When civility finally broke, the poor poured out of these narrow streets and up the hill, eager for revolution.

Barcelona in ruins as the war came to a close.The initial dust-up was between the CNT (that is, Confederación Nacional del Trabado, an anarchist group that had taken up the cause of the poor in the city as a justification for its anti-goverment crusades) and the Republican forces, trying to hold onto the last gasp of its crumbling, nineteenth-century power. And the Nationalists under Franco were waiting in the wings to exploit the inevitable conflict. Eventually, the CNT and the Republicans would join forces against Franco's henchmen to be on the losing side of the larger war.

The street battles were complicated by the fact that Barcelona was flooded with tourists in the summer of 1936 for the so-called "Popular Olympics," an alternative, international spectacle, created to protest the Olympics going on in Berlin under Nazi rule. Essentially, the Spanish Civil War began as a tourist spectable with thousands watching the increasingly bloody clashes from their hotel balconies and from tables in swanky cafes. Perhaps none was more taken up with the struggle than the British writer George Orwell.

In the initial skirmish, the CNT and their anarchist overlords won the day (but only temporarily). Barcelona was to become a leftist Paradise. (Or a Paradise as leftism was practiced in the early twentieth century, barely a generation after Marx.) Tipping was outlawed. All formal forms of Spanish address--like "usted," the more polite form for "you"--were frowned on. Restaurant and cafe barriers were taken down (there had existed a complicated system by which all tables were always reserved in the best places to avoid any riffraff). The city's many museums were opened to the public. The Communists were encouraged to set up a large, government-funded main office. And George Orwell became the de facto intellectual wellspring, sending out missives and statements from his posh suite at the Hotel Continental. (The former communist headquarters is now the site of the main, massive Apple store in town.)

Aerial view of Italian bombing runs over Barcelona.But Paradise it was not. Literally thousands of priests, clergy members, nuns, and monks were gunned down or disappeared by the anarchists. The economic unrest, never truly solved, began to divide the city again, weakening the CNT. The communists began to gain power. The anarchists sought help from the Republican troops from Madrid. Italians began bombing Barcelona. (Later, the fascists under Franco would point to the holes from shrapnel on buildings and claim it was from the CNT executing people in droves.) Communist allies in Russia began deserting the cause because of the allegiance of the Republican troops. At one point, both the Germans and the Russians were supporting the Nationalists under Franco in Catalan, despite Russia's allegiance with leftists in the rest of Spain and the two country's fighting each other elsewhere in Europe.

An executed nun, exhibited at the Montjuïc for crimes against the state.By 1937, the divisions were insurmountable. The Nationalists (or Fascists) got the upper hand. They killed most of the anarchists in power and even more of the clergy. They established totalitarian control over Barcelona. Orwell fled the country--his experiences led directly to his writing both ANIMAL FARM and 1984. And Barcelona descended into a dark pit of oppression and suppression. The infamous Castle Montjuïc, the place where the leftists had jailed and killed so many, became an even more aggressive torture-and-murder factory under the Nationalists and Franco. In many ways, the brunt of Franco's ire was always directed at Barcelona because neither the poor nor the rich in the city saw him as the natural, enlightened leader he imagined himself to be (gun in hand, of course).

Lines blurred. Allegiances were unpredictable. The sides were murky. World War II, in the offing, would present easier delineations. In Spain, your friend today was your betrayer tomorrow--and your mourner the next day. There wer so many sides, so many factions, so many disputes. Even today, the Spanish Civil War remains a tale difficult to tell. Because of government propoganda under Franco (and even in the years thereafter), it's often been said that the Spanish know the least about their own dark times. Most of the best chroniclers of the Spanish Civil War are British historians. There are English, French, and German tours today to take visitors to the sites of Barcelona's dark story. There are no like tours in Spanish.

You might consider this confusing history of Barcelona in the early to middle twentieth century not only the background for the novel we're reading but as an actual mirror of its events. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is not an allegory, and yet. . . . Is Fumero Franco? Hardly. And yet. . . . Is Fermín an anarchist? Hardly. And yet. . . . Is Daniel lost in the maze of ridiculously complicated Spanish politics, a story still being unraveled? Most definitely.

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