August 13, 2015
I spent pretty much the entire day today absorbed in the history of Barcelona, well prepared by reading Hugh Thomas’s long history of the Spanish Civil War, and then George Orwell’s fantastic book, “Homage to Catalonia.” I had read the Orwell book maybe forty years ago, but it is a marvelous human document, covering his time as a volunteer on the front lines of the civil war, and written with such warmth and obvious honesty as to make a lesser writer weep.
It turns out that right across from where we have the boat moored, there is the Museum of the History of Catalunya, covering the period from the Neanderthals to the present, more or less. The early stuff is predictable – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and all – but the exhibits from the 20th Century are very different from anything we’ve seen in Spain so far.
In Cadiz, you may or may not recall, the Spanish Civil War did not exist, as far as the museums were concerned. Cadiz, by the way, had been an early fascist stronghold, starting in July of 1936. Cartagena, further up the coast, had been a solid, but battered, center of Republican naval strength, right up to the end of the civil war, but had never been really a part of the revolutionary fervor that gripped northern Spain. In Cartagena there was a museum that related to the German “Condor Division” air raids on the town, but mostly they were treated as an “act of God” – something inexplicable, horrible, but for whom no particular group was to blame, except maybe foreigners, like Germans and Italians.
The museum in Barcelona is completely different. The period during and after the civil war is referred to as “Defeat and Recovery.” Franco is vilified as a fascist dictator, whose death allowed the process of re-establishment of democratic rights to begin, and also the process of restoration of Catalan independence. Lluis Companys, the leader of the Catalan Generaltitat – the Catalan regional government – who was executed by the Franco forces shortly after their victory in 1939, is honored (despite his less than perfect political record in defense of Catalunya) with a large park in his name.
There are walls of photos of the Franco police, the Guardia Civil, beating demonstrators in Barcelona, and the fight for the Catalan language and culture is contrasted to the repressive humiliations visited on the city by the victorious “Nationalist” forces.
After the museum I took off for a walk around the city, looking for some of the landmark sites of the most intense period of the civil war. They are all still there, from the Telephone Exchange controlled by the CNT syndicalists (subsequently attacked by the police under the control of Stalin’s Spanish “Communists”), to the headquarters of the POUM, the party accused (incorrectly) of “Trotskyism.” The armed attack on the telephone exchange was at least partly motivated by the fear that the anarcho-syndicalists were listening in on compromising telephone calls made by the Stalinist Communists and their conservative allies in the Republican government.
There is even the Moka Café, still functioning, although now a tourist joint where the waitress pretended to forget that I had given her a 50 euro note for a beer. This café figures largely in Orwell, as a place the Guardia Civil had holed up during the repression of the POUM. The POUM headquarters was across the street (now a Carrefours supermarket) and Orwell and a friend of his had bowled hand grenades across the Ramblas at the Guardia Civil. Like many Republican weapons, the hand grenades were shoddy and failed to go off. Then Orwell and his friend felt bad that they might injure unsuspecting passers-by, so they shot the grenades with rifles to set them off so no one would get hurt.
Orwell’s friend, a member of the POUM, took off all his weapons and walked over to the heavily armed Civil Guards. He said, “Let’s not shoot at each other. We don’t really need to.” The Guards agreed, and gave the POUM 15 precious bottles of beer from the bar.
So, I sat there in the Café Moka, and earlier looked up at the towering Telephone Exchange (still a telephone center, although for mobile phones now) and thought how little of history is conveyed by the physical sites where momentous events happened. I felt much the same walking around the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. So much explanation and understanding is needed, to grasp the suffering, and struggles, and hope reflected in the powerful and intense experiences that swirled around these landmarks, now just stone, and gravel, often overwhelmed by the noise of daily, modern life.
More personally, I felt the same thing walking around the University of California campus, 50 years after the tumultuous and life-changing events of the Free Speech Movement. Really, nothing of that struggle remained, except what those of us who participated can pass on, and what can be conserved as useful by future generations. In Spain, it seems almost a sacred duty to remember the heroism, and losses, and the generosity of those who went before us.