An invisible historical landscape: Barcelona’s Civil War tours

Written by Josh Newmark

Image: Albggt, Placa de Catalunya, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/574068283732608796/, 04/11/2018

In a country which is often described as suffering from ‘historical amnesia’ towards its Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, Civil War tours of Barcelona bring history to life where it is otherwise inapparent. For those intrigued by the Spanish Civil War, the lack of much museum space dedicated to the subject is sometimes frustrating. I plan to write another time about the reality of Spain’s pacto de olvido, pact of forgetting, but let it suffice to say that there is generally little Civil War material to be found on display around the country. All that springs to mind is the excellent Peace Museum in Guernica (the historical but seldom-visited pueblo in the Basque Country); a powerful but art-focused exhibition on Spain’s 1937 World Fair exhibit in Madrid’s Reina Sofia gallery, centred around Pablo Picasso’s own Guernica; and the meagre little displays beneath Salamanca’s well-guarded Civil War archive. Neither does the landscape generally bear much overt testimony to the fratricidal past (earlier Francoist monuments and place names have often been replaced with ostensibly neutral ones). Yet the relative lack of an official guide to sites of Civil War history offers a subtler way of encountering history.

Lacking any visible plaque or monument, the Plaça de Catalunya today is not immediately perceptible as the site where armed anarchist workers successfully repelled the soldiers sent to subdue the city. Yet having the events of 19 July 1936 recounted dramatically, while standing within the space where it took place, the space felt suddenly charged with historical energy. It became apparent that a square or other public space may be built and policed by elites, but the people of the city can infuse it with their own meaning and character, and can appropriate public space as, literally, the people’s space. Being amid the apparent order of modern-day Barcelona and the Plaça de Catalunya today, while visualising the barricades and people-power of the counter-counterrevolution, the latent potential with which history can infuse a space was brought home to me. If this was, within living memory, the site of a popular resistance to fascism, and an ensuing revolutionary upheaval, it feels as if anywhere could be. Institutions, constitutions, and the social order crumble before historical possibility. And perhaps the startling sense of historical reality was actually amplified by the lack of any official monument that might formalise or even commodify it as a place of memory.

George Orwell plays a frequent role in the Civil War tour. Arriving in Barcelona a few months after the defeated coup, his Homage to Catalonia contains a vivid description of revolutionary Barcelona, of which he opined that:

There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. 

We were shown the Hotel Continental where he stayed upon arrival, presumably also the site where he was scolded for attempting to tip a bellboy in a society where tipping had been abolished as an artefact of social hierarchy. The attic where Orwell was posted overnight as a sniper during the May Days conundrum of 1937, in which Anarchist and Trotskyist factions violently resisted the attempts by Moscow-oriented Communists to rein in the social revolution and expel them from the Republican coalition, is also pointed out to us. With ordinary people going about their business and leisure up and down La Rambla, it is difficult to imagine George Orwell clutching a rifle and running for cover: another powerful reminder of the historical energy contained in the La Rambla in particular, and in any European street in general.

Walking in Orwell’s footsteps from June 1937 when, returning from the front line after being shot in the throat by a sniper, he had to hastily flee Barcelona to evade capture by Moscow’s agents, you realise that this is where his anti-Stalinist fables Animal Farm and 1984 were forged in the furnace of the European Civil War. Again, this space has not been overtly memorialised and commodified: it is central Barcelona au naturel – a historical landscape so startling and evocative in its very lack of choreographing as a historical landscape. Admittedly, largely unseen on La Rambla, is an unassuming plaque demonstrating the last place where socialist leader Andreu Nin was seen alive before Stalinist agents disappeared and murdered him. Nin was the leader of the Trotskyist POUM party for which Orwell ended up fighting and almost dying.

Probably the most visibly historicised site on the Civil War tour is the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. The walls of the Church there are visibly pockmarked. Our guide informs us that for years the Francoist dictatorship maintained that this was the site of an anti-clerical massacre of priests perpetrated by the revolutionary Left – one of many which did take place during the early days of War – in keeping with their narrative of the patriotic Crusade against godless Bolsheviks. However, the pockmarks are clearly not from bullets: they are from shrapnel. In January 1938, during the siege of the city, a Nationalist bomb exploded in the square; most victims were schoolchildren, some of them orphaned refugees from Madrid. A second bomb hit as survivors were pulled from the rubble. Forty-two died. Today a tiny, plain plaque marks the site. Otherwise, the pockmarked façade is open to being interpreted or simply ignored by passers-by. This place evokes a strong, unsettling feeling: children were massacred here, and their deaths denied by a falsification of history. Yet the space is not being used to teach a lesson or erect monuments against extremism and murder: it is therefore a place to reflect on the suffering of innocent children at the cruel decisions of adults, and how we have failed to properly address that particular legacy of the twentieth century.

José Colmeiro has interpreted the prevalence of ghosts in Spanish film and literature as a cultural manifestation of the country’s evasion to engaging directly with its recent past. While more recently the Civil War and Francoist dictatorship have been in the public eye as Parliament passed a decree to exhume Franco from the massive Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, Barcelona’s Civil War tours show how much the ordinary streets of Spain are haunted, almost invisibly, by that past. But this is not an entirely bad thing. Instead of a commodified or formalised historical site, with all the expected social conventions, farcical coercion of particular forms of remembrance and societal disdain for others that go with that, it is an opportunity to really reflect on European history, and the momentous events of the past that took place in our streets and within our societies and then faded into myths, legends, and official narratives.

References

Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967 [1938])

Colmeiro, José, ‘Nation of ghosts?: haunting, historical memory and forgetting in post-Franco Spain’, 452 Electronic journal of theory of literature and comparative literature, 4 (2011), pp. 17-34.

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