Spanish Civil War: The Ecstasy and Agony of Barcelona in Her Finest Hour

On July 19, 1936, the citizens of Barcelona managed to take the destiny of Spain in their own hands – if only for a while.

As I stepped out of my hotel and started to walk towards Placa Catalunya, the Ramblas was only just waking up. The rain had stopped but the sky remained overcast. The grey light of a bleak late-November morning did nothing to raise my spirits: were we going to have the walking tour, after all? I had so wanted to join it that I had even lobbied, long-distance, with our guide so that he would put off his own plans for a vacation. And here I was, very much in Barcelona , but not sure if rain wasn’t going to upend my plans. I was on edge.

But my nervousness quickly evaporated as I sighted our guide standing at the appointed place in front of Cafe Zurich, one of Barcelona’s most popular rendezvous. An Englishman, he has made Spain his home, and the history of the Spanish Civil War is the one great passion of his life. His gaunt face is quite as well-known as his tours. In season, it is not easy to get on one of them.

We were a motley group of eight from three continents. There were three couples from northern Europe, all university teachers, an American from Massachusetts who introduced himself as a Trotskyist, and yours truly. Everyone shared an interest in the Civil War, some also in George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia formed the axis around which the tour was organised.

Fittingly, the Civil War tour started at Placa Catalunya, the busy square at the tip of the Ramblas rimmed by important state institutions, hotels and banks. It had all begun here early in the morning of July 19, 1936. For two days previously, Spanish army groups in a few pockets of southern and central Spain had been rising against the left-wing Republican (‘Popular Front’) government voted into power in February that year.

General Franco. Credit: Wikipedia

The plan was to take local administrations by surprise everywhere and clear the stage for General Francisco Franco, stationed in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, to descend on the mainland as the country’s saviour. The Republican agenda of wide-ranging reforms in rural property relations, landholding sizes and civil and personal rights, together with the government’s efforts at loosening the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on the institutions of the state and the Spanish educational infrastructure, had stirred deep hostility in the propertied classes and their powerful patrons in the church. The army, traditionally top-heavy, stolidly invested in the status quo and resentful of even a whiff of social change, had plotted the coup to overthrow the popular government (with Socialists, Communists and the Liberal-Left as its constituents and support from the Anarchists) with the active backing of the Monarchists, the Church and the middle-class Radical Party.

Beginning with the night of July 17, military units in Seville, Cardiz, Zaragova, Valadolid and Cordoba rebelled and began to swiftly disarm government forces. The Catalonian and Basque Country regions were some of the bastions of potential resistance to this counter-revolutionary uprising, and the coup’s leaders knew this all too well. At the heart of Catalonia, Barcelona – passionately, fiercely anti-clerical and non-conformist in spirit – had been planned to be taken in a brisk, brutal early-morning sweep. At four in the morning on that fateful July day, the conspirator officers marched out of the Pedralbes Barracks near the city where a 5,000-strong garrison had its quarters, telling their men that they were to quell, on  ‘the government’s orders’, an ‘anarchist uprising’ in Barcelona. A cavalry unit and a dragoons regiment followed suit soon, seeking to converge on Placa Catalunya, take over strategic buildings at the city centre and triumphantly announce to the world that Red Barcelona had fallen.

That was not to be, however, not that day at any rate, indeed not until the end of January 1939, or till very nearly the end of the civil war that seared itself into the memory of a whole generation of men like very few wars  have ever done, including some fought on much larger scales.

On July 19, 1936, Barcelona erupted in violent resistance, its citizens daring Franco’s men to do their worst. Paving stones were wrenched out of the cobbled yard of the Placa and barricades built with them, anarchist snipers mingled cheerfully with the Assault Guards and the Guardia Civil – paramilitary troops loyal to the Republican cause, whom the anarchist CNT (Workers’ Union) would usually keep at a sneering distance – and crude, home-made grenades were hurled at the insurrectionists with quite the same gusto as regular rifle shots. In the first flush of excitement, some rebel units had managed to occupy the tall telephone exchange building while some others ensconced themselves in Hotel Colon and in the Ritz. (All these three landmarks stand to this day.) 

General Goded. Credit: Wikiepda

From these strategic positions, they hoped to extend their control over the whole city down to its port area, and then await the arrival of General Manuel Goded Llopis, Franco’s trusted aide, who would secure the capitulation of the Republican forces. The tables were soon turned, however, as pitched battles were fought on the square and in the streets and lanes around it. Armed knots of civilians (women as many as men), along with scatterings of the police and Assault Guard forces, laid siege to the rebel positions and drew the insurgent bands out in surrender one after another as the day progressed. The combat was bloody and extreme, but the ‘Nationalists’ – as the insurrectionists called themselves – did not stand a chance (in some areas that day, they were outnumbered five to one), though they succeeded in holding off the loyalist forces from storming the Francoists’ last citadel – the Drassanes barracks.

General Goded, the would-be conqueror, was arrested – to be tried for treason by a military tribunal three weeks later, and executed on August 12 in the moat of Montjuic Castle. Early on July 20, the anarchist icon Buenaventura Durruti and his men mounted an attack on Drassanes, throwing out the insurgents and seizing no fewer than 30,000 battle-worthy rifles, a commodity  that would be in woefully short supply on the Republican side nearly all through the two years and nine months of the Civil War.

Thanks to our guide, an interesting new perspective on the Civil War opened to us that morning. We did not know that the women and men who joined battle with the Falangists in Barcelona on July 19 had in their ranks a couple of hundred foreign volunteers who happened to be there that day for a very different reason. The Barcelona ‘People’s Olympiad’, organised under the auspices of trade union congresses of several European countries, had been planned for July 22-26 that year as a strong counter to the Berlin Summer Olympics (slated for August 1-16) which were to be hosted by Hitler’s Reich.

Anti-Fascist activists, artists and workers’ councils across Europe and other continents responded with great enthusiasm to the call given by the British Workers’ Sports Association for celebrating ‘the true spirit of the Olympics’ through such an Olympiad. Over 6,000 participants from 22 countries including France, England, Belgium, Algeria, Canada,  Czechoslovakia, the US, and the Soviet Union (which till then had boycotted the Olympics on ideological grounds), besides members of the German and Italian Resistance movements, had registered for the games which were to feature football, chess, music, drama and folk-music together with the usual track-and-field events. A number of these participants had arrived by July 18.

As trouble broke out, the games had to be called off and many athletes went back home, dejected. A couple of hundred stayed on, however, throwing in their lot with the defenders of the Republic and volunteering as fighters, nurses or organisers. Their presence in Spain in those turbulent days was a tribute to the spirit of internationalism that became a powerful symbol of the Civil War. Indeed, they were  precursors to the international brigades that were to play a significant role in the war as it escalated and intensified over the following weeks and months.   

The iconic photo of Marina Ginestà i Coloma, taken by Juan Guzmán on top of the Hotel Colón in Barcelona. A reporter, she served as a reporter and a translator assisting Mikhail Koltsov, a correspondent of the Soviet newspaper Pravda. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Notwithstanding the routing of the rebels in Barcelona in July at the hands of pro-Republic forces, the Civil War eventually ended with Franco’s forces as victors. It had been a terrible war, bloody and pitiless, even absurd at times. So many different strands of  Spanish and international politics, of Spain’s history and economy and the logic of realpolitik were intermeshed in the hostilities, that the Civil War powerfully exercises the popular imagination to this day, nearly 80 years after its end.

Some of those issues kept coming up in our conversation as we walked the lanes and blind alleyways around the Ramblas that gloomy winter morning, looking at landmarks that bear witness to that tumultuous time: the quiet, cobblestoned Placa Sant Felip Neri where, on January 30, 1938, Mussolini’s bomber planes dropped a massive load of bombs, ostensibly to destroy ‘fanatical and ungodly Republicans’, but killing 42 children and their caregivers sheltering in a church which then served as an orphanage, the pock-marked outer walls of the church carrying to this day the memory of that horror; the tall octagonal tower of the church of Santa Maria del Pi from where, on May 3, 1937, a lone gunman shooting down at a group of Anarchist youths, triggered one of the ugliest internecine battles fought among different groups of the Republican coalition, sadly but surely precipitating the Republic’s decline and fall; Hotel Continental at 138, Ramblas, where Orwell stayed with his wife when on vacation from the Aragon front in April-May, 1937, taking mental notes of the events of those weeks for his civil war classic; the Teatro Principal theatre building which then served as the Local Committee of the POUM, the Trotskyist Marxist Unity Party whose militia Orwell had joined when he came out to Barcelona; the Poliorama Theatre at 115, Ramblas, inside whose rooftop observatory, Orwell, rifle in hand, sat for three days and nights in May 1937, keeping an eye out for possible attacks on the POUM stronghold, as Barcelona was about to tip into the violent insanity of  fratricidal war.

The bombing of Barcelona in 1938. Credit: Wikipedia

At the tour’s end, however, we managed to shrug off  the unedifying memories of that bewildering period of the Republic. A visit to La Libertaria, a bar-cum-coffee shop on the Ramblas, was the appropriate finale to our walk through history. Libertaria was taken over by CNT fighters and run with great elan by an all-woman anarchist staff in the heady days of the Spanish revolution. As the Republic disintegrated and Franco unleashed his reign of tyranny and terror, the bar had to fold up and the many magnificent pictures, photos and festoons documenting  the Civil War years that adorned its walls had all to be smuggled out to safe locations.

After Spain re-established democracy in 1977 and exorcised Franco, Libertaria was back in business once again, with Spanish women again at its helm.  Its walls got back their treasures and hung them up again in homage to one of the most stirring, also the most tragic, episodes in history. That day in November, 74 years after the fall of Red Barcelona, the eight of us – all non-Spaniards – sat around a somewhat rickety table inside the bar, nursing our drinks, reliving in our minds the bitter-sweet time that had wrung the following lines from the heart of one of 20th century’s great poets, W.H. Auden:

                “What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.

                  I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic

                 Death? Very well, I accept, for

                I am your choice, your decision. Yes. I am Spain.”

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, translator and commentator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com