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Spooky Action At A Distance

Thoughts on the Spanish Civil War

By Sandra Ramos Rossi

Statue King Philips III, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

One day during the summer a couple years ago I was driving into Madrid city centre with my nephew, who was fourteen years old at the time, visiting from England. As you come in from the east you have to pass the Puerta de Alcalá, which is a big ceremonial arch, built in the 1700s, smaller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but quite a lot larger than Marble Arch in London. The stonework is still pitted with seventy year old bullet marks from the Spanish Civil War, and I pointed them out to him. "So, was that a real shooting war, where people died?" he asked.

Well I guess you could say it was. My mind flew back immediately to that old man as he told me there had been 500 in his company at the beginning, and only 50 had survived. "The planes followed us for a hundred miles, during all the retreat. They wouldn’t stop strafing and bombing us," he said, shaking his head. The anguish he felt was patent in his voice, even after all those years.

I came to live in Madrid in 1995. I’ve always been interested in Spain; I’d visited the country two or three times and read about the history, so I jumped at the opportunity when I was offered a job here. That same year was the first since the civil war in 1936 that the soldiers that had fought in the International Brigades were honoured. These fighting Brigades were made up of foreigners who had come to help the Spanish Government forces defend the Republic against a right-wing fascist coup.

It had taken 60 years for this to happen, because the wounds that the war caused in Spanish society had not healed sufficiently before that. All the ex-soldiers were invited to a formal act of recognition, what the Spanish call an homenaje, literally, a homage. The ceremony was held in the headquarters of the Spanish Socialist Party, which gives you an idea of how sensitive a subject it still was, still is. The right-wing parties would not have countenanced the act being held in any state-owned building.

At the time I was friendly with a Swedish girl who was a journalist, and she was able to obtain tickets for the ceremony with her Press Pass. She had volunteered to look after and translate for one of the Swedish Brigaders, so I was also invited to go back to the hotel where the other Brigaders were staying and talk to some of them.

It’s difficult to write this, because I still get emotional thinking about those fine, proud, straight-backed, generous men, all of them over eighty, most, if not all of whom will be dead now, ten years later. They were all volunteers who came to fight in a war that was not their own, to defend an ideal, and they left a mark on me. I still remember them vividly.

It turns out that the first man I approached was a tall, white-haired Canadian. He must have been an imposing man in his youth, because he still had a large frame, and an air of strength, even though he was more than eighty years old. I asked him why he had volunteered to come to Spain and fight. "Well," he said, "all of us were just ordinary farm boys. It just seemed to be the right thing to do. A group of 500 of us came over." And then he went on to tell me about the retreat from the river Ebro, with the planes strafing and bombing them the whole way, about how he had lost 450 of his comrades and only ten percent of them had come out of it alive. I listened with an open mouth, trying to imagine what that could have been like. "They wouldn’t stop," he said, "we were retreating, but they bombed us the whole way, they wouldn’t stop." Resentment at that brutal treatment still burned in his eyes.

The next person I talked to was a British man in a wheelchair, smoking a pipe, who had been an officer. I asked him what he thought about a film that had just been released, called Tierra Y Libertad (Land and Freedom) by the British left-wing director, Ken Loach. The premise of the film is that the happy band of anarchists, socialists and international volunteers that had defended the Republic in the first months of the war had been betrayed by the communists, who had used Russian money and influence to take over and reorganise the army in a more professional manner. At the same time they had brutally imposed their own Stalinist doctrine and excluded the other groups.

It’s a story that George Orwell also tells in his book Homage to Catalonia. Orwell was an International Brigader who fought with one of the socialist groups. He describes with undisguised disgust the gun battle between anarcho-socialists and communists for control of the Barcelona Post Office building, even while the enemy was advancing on the town.

Well, this old officer got very upset and started talking about how it was Trotskyist propaganda. "You mean Trotsky is still paying the shots after all these years?" I asked, amazed and amused at the strong reaction my innocent question had aroused. I didn’t realise until later that he had probably seen men bleed and die over this very argument. It was still very real to him, and I was just as naïf as my fourteen year old nephew not to see that. It really was a shooting war, where people died.

His helper shooed me away, protecting him from further blood pressure increases, and I went to talk to a group of three Czechoslovakians. Their country had recently been broken up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. "We prefer to call it Czechia," they said. And then, "We are communists," as if that explained everything. They had no doubts about what they had done and why they did it.

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Statue King Philips III, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain