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Let our memories run through our veins …

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Lorca 1The grave of Federico García Lorca has never been found but it is believed that his remains lie in the hills to the north of Granada, Andalusia close to the town of Viznar. He was probably executed on August 19th, 1936 – 71 years ago.

Lorca is regarded as one of Spain’s must important modern poets and dramatist and while his reputation was well established at the time of his death, it was not sufficient to save him from his fate at the hands of Franco’s henchmen. Although Lorca was left-leaning , he was also a gay man: these facts alone condemned him to an early death. He was one of ten of thousands who were murdered in Spain during and after Spain’s Civil War (1936-39) for no other reason than being deemed undesirable to Franco’s fascist regime. Today there’s a memorial at the site where it is believed that Lorca was killed..

Location

The easiest way to get to the site is to travel to Viznar itself, about six miles from Granada and then take the road going to Alfacar. About 3 km along, the road take a sharp reverse turn and makes its ways along a hillside; to the south there are views back to Viznar. A short distance from the turn, on your right (looking uphill or to the north), there is a layby (clearly sign-posted) where you can leave your car or bike. The general area is known as the Sendero Barranco de Viznar  (Viznar Ravine Trail) and is popular with walkers and trekkers. Close by is a second signpost indicating that this area is important for other reasons too: Lugar de Memoria Historica de Andalucia [Place of historical memory]. 

Lorca

Lorca 3A path leaves the layby and winds uphill through an open pine forest offering shade. There are undulations and gullies on a both sides of the path. After about five minutes you will come an area of flatter terrain marked by a number of log fence boundaries. A flat low-lying slab of stone bears the inscription of a line from Lorca’s poem, Prelude – Love :

 

El viento esta amortajado
a lo largo bajo el cielo
[The shrouded wind lies full length beneath the sky ]

A short distance on there are a number of larger flat slabs which bear an array of memorial plaques. Some are dedicated to individuals such as that to Delores Rozalez Vinez – They Silenced Your Voice But Not Our Memory. Others are dedicated to lists of people executed in the quiet secluded area – Executed in Viznar Ravine on 23 October 1936 is followed by a list of thirty names. Further along there is a large gully. A square upright monolith stand at one end. Flowers have been left in a number of places and the monolith bears the inscription:

Lorca Eran Todos
18-8-2002
[Lorca was all]

There is stone terracing for sitting on. When we visited Viznar it was quiet and there was no one else around. Since the trees provide welcome shade from the sun, it is by no means an unpleasant place to stop at and rest for a bit. However,  under the ground, lie the remains of many hundreds of people. Some have been identified but many remain unidentified. It is difficult today to imagine the summary violence that would regularly taken place at the site over many years following Franco’s victory.

Anarchists

Viz 6It is believed that Lorca was executed along with two well-known militants of the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist union which was a leading force in the Spanish Revolution. The remains of these men – Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas and Francisco Baladí Melgar – have also not been identified. A plaque placed at the Viznar site by the CNT reads:

“Let our memories run through our veins. We remember everyone who lies in this gully. To the anarchists who are scattered under this earth. To our deceased we do not cry, we try to emulate them in the fight for a social revolution and against the fascism that they faced”

Lorca 2Various other memorial plaques are testimony to the broad range of people who were killed outside Viznar. Trade-unionists, left-wing activists, feminists, cultural activists and many, many others all fell victim to Franco’s knife. The context for the extermination was succinctly put by General Emilio Mola who stated at the outset of the Civil War what the point of the military uprising was:

“It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do. There can be no cowardice. If we hesitate one moment and fail to proceed with the greatest determination, we will not win.”

Although Lorca’s reputation is the main reason for the memorial at Viznar, many of the other plaques present at the site are as moving. Each and everyone tells a story of resistance and remembering. This one to Miguel Gomez Poyatos is a perfect example.

MIGUEL GOMEZ POYATOSViz 7w
Murdered in this place on Sept 5th 1936.
We have never forgotten you
We will never forget you.

 

They may be able to kill the rooster
that announces the dawn
but they cannot stop that dawn arriving
 (your grandson Emilio)

 

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75th Anniversary of the Spanish Revolution!

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This month, 75 years ago, one of the most significant democratic movements in human history got underway in Spain.

The onset of the Spanish Civil War will be remembered by many for the tragic and valiant struggle that took place in Spain to stem the tide of fascism in Europe.  It is certainly important to remember and celebrate that struggle that took place in Spain between 1936-39.  But less well known and more important – to my mind – was the democratic revolution that took place in Spain between 1936 and 1937.  It was an immense revolution and it ushered in a new economic and social order where workers and farm labourers organised and controlled this places of work and their communities.  For an important and significant period of time a different way of organising society and economic production – where human needs came ahead of profits – held sway.

Let’s face it, in today’s world – where inequality is rampant; where poverty and starvation is rife while the world’s wealthy party on; and where environmental destruction seems never ending – it is important to remember and cherish this possible way forward for human kind.

Even now the scale of the revolution and the  its achievements are not fully acknowledged.  Although this is a situation that is gradually being reversed – with more academic research now focused on this important revolutionary period in Spain’s history.

Over the long period of this anniversary I hope to look at different aspects of the revolution and its eventual fate.   There’s no real plan here other than to cover topics of interest whilst completing research for a fictional work that is in part set in revolutionary Spain – of which more much later on.

But first a salute to those that resisted dictatorship and fascism and in the process opened up  a real window of hope for a viable and free socialist society.

Related articles and further reading:

Barcelona’s El Fossar de la Pedrera

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El Fossar de la Pedrera

I first read about El Fossar de la Pedrera (“the Quarry grave”) in Michael Eaude’s excellent guide to Barcelona. Writng in 2008, Eaude points out that there is no mention of “the Quarry grave” in any of the standard guides to Barcelona, and then goes on to describe his encounter with Barcelona’s Tourist Office who proclaimed no knowledge of the “the Quarry grave”.  It was exactly the same for me when I went looking September last (2010).  Like Eaude I was directed to El Fossar de la Moreres, which is a monument related to the siege of Barcelona in in 1714!  Despite repeated efforts to explain to the guide at the tourist office about El Fossar de la Pedrera and its connection to the Spanish Civil War, I had no luck.   However El Fossar de la Pedrera is marked clearly on many of the good maps of the Barcelona area.  I used Michelin’s current Barcelona map and made my way there on foot.  It is a long walk admittedly but I got there.  For more information see my post Getting to El Fossar de la Pedrera.

El Fossar de la Pedrera was the location for Franco’s bloody revenge against those who had stood against him in the Civil War and afterwards.  It was a place of execution and is now the site of a mass grave exclusively connected to the Spanish Civil War.  As a place of execution it was chosen for a number of reasons.  Firstly because of what it was – the quarry was the ‘common’ or paupers’ grave in Barcelona and for this reason it provided the executioners with an easy and reliable method for the disposing of the bodies of their victims.  On execution the dead fell down into cut away section far below and were left there to be buried in unmarked common graves.  Something like 4000 people died, and are buried, at El Fossar de la Pedrera – resistance fighters of all hues, from anarchists to republicans; residents of Barcelona who had stood up to Franco and fascism; prisoners of war from the Civil War itself.  Indeed many who just showed defiance and resistance to the dictatorship ended up here.  The second reason why the ‘Quarry grave’ was chosen was due to its remote location – being on the south side of Barcelona’s Montjuic Cemetery (or Cementiri del Sud-oest in Catalan).  Lastly, the execution site was within easy reach of Montjuic Castle where many were held before their execution.

El Fossar de la Pedrera

Today El Fossar de la Pedrera is maintained as a memorial to those who fought Franco.  Entry is via the main cemetery, but the ‘Quarry grave’ itself is in its own remote corner pinned between cliffs – separated from the main cemetery.

The entrance is marked by steps and rows of tall, square columns.  On closer examination one can see the names of the thousands who were executed here, chiseled into the stonework.  After you pass through these stark columns one can see the scene of execution clearly ahead.  At the very back, the cliff is high above the base of the quarry floor.  The executed were shot up there and their bodies fell downwards.  Even now it is not difficult to see why this place was chosen – it is remote and quiet and detached from the bustle of Barcelona.

It is a very sad place, of course.  When one dwells for any length of time on those who breathed their last here, one cannot escape the sadness that defeat in the Civil War heralded.  For many individuals, this place was a lonely, ugly end to years of struggle and vision.

At the same time the “Quarry grave’ today is quite welcoming.  It has to be kept in mind that this is one of the few memorials in Spain to the Left and republican cause.  It is beautifully arranged and maintained.  The floor of the quarry was evened out and landscaped; there are trees and shrubs and the grass is green (unusual in Spain) and well maintained.  Different aspects of the Civil War are marked here by different memorials.  Given that this is Catalonia there is a special place reserved for Luis Companys, who was buried here until his family reclaimed his body.  There are memorials to the guerillas who fought Franco; there is also a memorial to the Holocaust victims; there are numerous others too.

At the very back, at the base of the cliff, are a series of randomly placed individuals plaques.  Like miniature tombstones these bear testimony to the grave site of the fallen.  Some have the names of individuals written on them, while others are from memorial committees set up to remember the various contingents who went to Spain in 1936 to help with the fight against Franco and international fascism.

 

El Fossar de la Pedrera

Franco’s Victims and ‘culture of terror’ in Spain

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Thousands lie in unmarked graves

I met CNT activist Manuel Garcia at this year’s Dublin Anarchist Bookfair where he was speaking about the CNT’s successes in organising workers in the Andalucía region.  The anarchist movement in Spain is now in the process of rebuilding its influence among workers and the efforts of activists such as Manuel is central to the success that they are having.  On this occasion I wanted to speak to Manuel about the legacy of  the Franco dictatorship.  (Translation for this interview was kindly provided by José Antonio Gutiérrez Danton.)

KD: The talk you gave just now was excellent.  But I want to ask you about a different, though connected, struggle that is ongoing throughout Spain at this present time.  This is what is known as the movement for the recovery of historical memory.  What can you tell me about this?

MG: As you know the situation on July 19th 1936 was different in different areas of Spain.  In many places the people rose up and the revolution triumphed.  But in Andalucía the army had the upper hand very early on.  So, in effect, in much of Andalucía the people were free for only a very short time.  So you cannot properly speak of a civil war in the region.  Rather, from the outset, there was a massive act of repression.  When the coup happened, within one week, almost the entire region of Andalucía was in the control of the Nationalist troops – that is the Francoist troops that were coming across from Morocco.  The truth is that tens of thousands of people died immediately at their hands.

KD: In Andalucía where was the resistance successful?

MG: There was some armed resistance in the mountains of Huelva and in Seville itself but in most places thousands of people were summarily executed.  They had no guns in their hands.  In the east of Andalucía, the resistance to Franco lasted the longest – around Almeria and that region.   But here the repression when it came was even harsher.  There is a particularly infamous event that is well documented.  As people were fleeing from the Malaga area towards Almeria, after the collapse of the front there, thousands and thousand died on the roads just trying to get refuge.  They were bombed and shot down from the skies.  It was a slaughter.

KD: What happened once Franco had won the Civil War?

MG: In fact even when the Franco’s dictatorship had won they still considered the situation to be one of war and a veritable war was waged against the workers.  In political and cultural terms it was waged with the purpose of annihilating any vestige of resistance.  The 40s and the 50s were very harsh years.   In other words then we are not only talking about people who were annihilated during this mass initial repression but we are talking about the thousands who were executed later on.

KD:  What sort of numbers are we talking about?

MG:  It is very hard to know how many died.  There is no full record as such.  And many of the executions were carried out summarily.  And not just by the authorities but often just by the local boss or landowner.  This is something of interest to the movement for the recovery of historical memory now. They are trying to piece together exactly what happened.   There is a website called ‘We Want All The Names’ which is trying to get the name of each and every person who was executed.  It wants to place a short biog with each name to record the situation of all those who suffered repression.  This is a job that is being carried out in a very local way.

KD:  Is the movement led by families and relatives or by political activists?

MG:  Both.  This effort is being driven by militants of the left but also in many many cases by relatives. The most important thing for many involved is actually to recover the bodies of the victims and give them a proper dignified burial.

KD: How has the anarchist movement related to his process and movement?

MG: Anarchists are very involved with this movement.  As you know anarchism was a very big movement in the lead up to July 1936 and in particular the anarchist oriented union – the CNT – was a key organisation in the revolution.  Furthermore the unions and the union movement itself were the main targets of the repression.  And it’s fair to say that the CNT in particular was targeted.   So we are very involved with the movement to recover historical memory.   But not only in the sense of identifying the victims and what happened in this and that situation.  As anarchists we are also involved in order to bring awareness on the social structures created and fostered by the dictatorship.  What we are talking about here is specifically the culture of fear, of terror that has survived the dictatorship and that is alive in Spain today.  There is still a real fear about getting involved in struggles because of the culture of terror that the Franco regime imbedded in society. This fear is alive and it is important to challenge it.  So the movement to recovery memory also has an important role to play in addressing this big issue.

KD:  It is a very difficult process to go through but necessary?  Is that so?

MG:  Yes, that is how it is.  But it is very necessary because thirty years on from the end of the dictatorship many people who suffered repression are still afraid to speak.  And that in part is because repression became a taboo subject for many families.  This of course is what the dictatorship wanted.  The repression that occurred was very effective in the sense that whole families were criminalised and stigmatised by the regime and the authorities.  And this, in many cases, had the effect that the regime desired.

KD: Can you give an example?

MG: Well instead of opposing the regime some people reacted against the Left saying ‘My family was killed because of those ideas (i.e. the ideas of anarchism say)’. And then they often tried to rationalise the situation – the tragedies that had been visited on their families – by saying, ‘Oh look my father was not an anarchist or was not a communist. He was just a good chap and he was killed by mistake.’  So in many cases the response was what the Franco regime wanted deep down: people shied away at a very close level from some of the tragic events that happened around them.

KD: So the present upsurge in efforts to identify victims is a challenge to that?

MG: Yes, in that sense it is very good for Spanish society.  And of course it is also very good for people as individuals.  Many are finding out their family history for the first time.  For example they discover that their grandfather was a militant with the CNT.  The family lore may provided some information for example that their grandfather was ‘unusual’ and ‘had never got married but had a family’ or stuff like that.  But by looking more closely and delving into the past they discover that say this grandfather had a CNT card.  This gives people an understanding of what happened.  So they find out the politics of their own family – that they may have been anarchists, communists or republicans – and that there was a reason for those things that may have happened to their families during the time of the dictatorship.

KD: How has the Spanish state reacted to this movement?

MG: There is a law of historical memory.  But it is a very restrictive and now they are not even implementing it.  So in most cases the work that has been done so far has been done by people acting as individuals.  In fact in over 90% of cases it has been down to individual efforts that the graves of victims have been found.   And a further example of the opposition in the Spanish state is the prosecution of Judge Garcon who is standing trial now.   And for us as anarchist, our view is that this opposition is proof that the current society is in many ways the direct heir of the Franco dictatorship.

KD: The process of recovery memory has accelerated over the last while.  Do you have a view as to why this is so?

MG: It’s a complicated matter.  The CNT and all sections of the revolutionary left since the democratic opening at the end of the formal dictatorship in 1975 have been fighting for a social memory in order to purge the state apparatus – the judiciary and the police, the military – of fascist elements.  But also in order to create awareness of what forty years of dictatorship has meant and what been its effect over ordinary people.  For example we have argued that it is very important to rehabilitate the memories of those who resisted not just during the Civil War but actually after.  Until recently many of those who opposed the dictatorship were considered as brigands and nothing more.   Now the process of finding out what really went on is well underway.

KD: Many thanks for time comrades and my thanks to our fine translator.

Liberty Hall, Dublin May 2010.

Review: Death In El Valle and Franco’s Victims

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I came across Death In El Valle while researching the work of the Association For the Recovery of Historical Memory . The ARMH has been collecting information about the victims of Franco’s Spain since its foundation in 2000.  It has played a major role in identifying many mass execution sites and has instituted legal moves to have these sites excavated and the remains of those found identified and given proper burials.  It is safe to say that their work has gone a long way towards uncovering the real horror that was Franco’s Spain.

Death In El Valle is  a documentary, in Spanish and English, by US photographer CM Hardt about the  particular circumstances of her grandfather’s death.  CM Hardt’s was born in the United States of Spanish parents.  She returned to Spain over the years with her parents to see her grandmother and her wider extended family.  It was via these visits that she heard about the death of her grandfather whom, it seems, was involved in the resistance movement that lived on in Spain well after the Civil War itself had ended.  Intrigued she made inquiries and learned that her grandfather was betrayed by a local villager and died not long after his arrest.  However she wasn’t able to find out much more than that.

The documentary is a record of her journey to uncover the truth.  Gradually she finds out exactly what happened, how and, for the most part, why.  She is particularly interested – naturally enough – in who might have betrayed her grandfather and a share of the documentary focuses on finding out more about this – to no real avail. Fingers are pointed and rumours abound but there is no definitive answer.  Instead, Hardt discovers the name of Guardia Civil officer who was present on the night her grandfather was murdered.  It emerges that it was an extra judicial execution.  Her grandfather was told to run and then shot for trying to escape.

Franco's Victims

Franco’s Spain and present, modern-day Spain collide in the meeting between Hardt and the now retired policeman.   Like many Spaniards this policeman lives in an apartment block in a busy residential area.  He could be any man that you meet anywhere in Spain except that he has an ugly past to hide.  At first, he is forthcoming about the general events of that night.  He is a bit surprised, it must be said, to be confronted by the victim’s granddaughter.   But as Hardt attempts to pry further, to find out more, he clams up.  Subsequently, he refuses to meet her again.

Death In El Valle is let down by its narrow focus.  The context of what was really at stake in Spain during the Civil War is not explored.   True, many people know about the general outline of the Civil War and why it happened, but there is no wider exploration of what forces were at play.  We are left with the very nebulous description – beloved of the middle stream – that the Spanish Civil War was about ‘saving democracy’.  In fact it was a great deal more.  See here for more.  Properly speaking the Civil War and its aftermath was about defeating a revolution – regarded by many as perhaps the most thoroughgoing social revolution ever seen on this planet.   In response Franco and his forces attempted to ‘eradicate’ the left (across the spectrum).  It was a ferocious and unforgiving assault – the after effects of which are still being felt.

Nonetheless Death In El Valle is engaging and provocative.  It is well produced and moving: the fact that it is a record of a real journey of investigation gives it an extra edge.   It is disturbing too though.  As anyone who has attempted this sort of thing will testify, unearthing the past seems like a straightforward quest until one actually goes about it.   The realities of Franco’s Spain adds a whole other dimension of difficulty to Hardt’s endeavour.  As Death In El Valle amply shows, today in Spain, there are many who are fearful of that time and what they did to survive .  There are also plenty of others who just want to forget the period and how awful it was.

For further information on both the documentary and its director, as well as information on how to acquire a copy of the DVD, see the links above.  Promotional clips from Death In El Valle are here

Orwell on the Aragon Front

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huesca cnt

Anarchism In Huesca: CNT Poster May Day 09

George Orwell fought on the Aragon Front in the Spanish Civil War around Alcubierre and later near Huesca.   One of the front line positions he fought at has been preserved and reconstructed and is well worth a visit.

I drove south out of Huesca on the N330.  About 15 kms out there is a signpost turning for Alcubierre.   Heading east along this road it is narrow and flat.  The land on either side is under cultivation but it seems otherwise to be an arid and dry area.  There are low hills further east, to the north and south, Los Monegros.

Alcubierre is a small town.   Orwell in not very complementary to then village where he spent some days before being sent to a position at the front, to the west.  He was there in the dead of winter but it was early summer when I visited.  It is hard now to imagine what it must have been like but Orwell makes a point of telling us how cold and muddy it was there during his stay.

His period in and around Alcubierre is notable for a number of reasons though.  Firstly it was in Alcubierre that he received his first weapon for use in the war against fascism.  He said though: ‘I got a shock of dismay when I saw the thing they gave me.’  It turned  out to be a gun more than 40 years old – a German Mauser from 1896!  Indeed the reality of ‘civil war within the civil war’ that was, at this time, beginning to gain momentum on the Republican side was brought home to him starkly by this key incident.  He described the gun as follows: ‘It was rusty, the bolt was stiff, the wooden barrel-guard was split; once glance down the muzzle showed that it was corroded and past praying for’.

Alcubierre reminded me of a small market town in Ireland though it a lot dryer and hotter of course.  But there was as they say a good country smell in the air. In front of the town hall, there was a kids’ playground area.  The town hall itself was under renovation.  A small cafe was open but overall it seemed like a sleepy place.  But then I was there in and around siesta time.  There were no signs anywhere around – that I could see anyway – for La Ruta Orwell.  There were no signs anywhere around – that I could see anyway – for La Ruta Orwell.  Like so much in Spain today to do with the Civil War, there is uncertainty about what place the Civil War should occupy.  And of coure there is uncertainty – and in many cases, deep unease – about how to deal with the many scars that are there to see still to this day

Taking the road south out of Alcubierre, you veer to the west.  There is a lot of desiccated vegetation and a white-grey ground which looks generally poor and unproductive.  The road itself is good – it goes to Lecinena and then on into Zaragoza.  As it climbs into the Monegros there are good views back toward Alcubierre and Monazon.

About 12 kms out on this road there is a small sign – quite easily missed – on the left hand size of the road: La Ruta Orwell.  The sign leads onto a narrow unsealed road.  Take it slowly.  It goes uphill and winds for a bout 1.5 km.  Then you come to a fork in the road. There should be a sign for which direction to take at this point but it was missing when I was there.  Take the left hand fork in the road.  This veers around sharply in a horseshoe and goes to hill top just about visible from back where the fork in the road was.   The restored site is just at the top there.

La Ruta Orwell

Spanish Civil War: Trench position where Orwell fought

It is an impressive re-construction.  There are explanatory panels giving good background on the Alcubierre Front and on Orwell’s own observations.  It is possible to see clearly from the vantage point of this restored frontline position what Orwell meant when he said ‘Now that I had seen the front I was profound disgusted’.  The fascist positions were on the far off hills and the soldiers manning those position could barely be seen.  The cold and boredom occupied Orwell’s day.  There are occasional brushes with the enemy but there is a sense of no real movement.  In another important observation made at this stage by Orwell, he explains how different the army is that he is now a member of is from a ‘traditional army’ – he spent some time in the British Army of course.  He said ‘.., There was no military rank in the ordinary sense; not titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting.  They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working of the classless society.’

A good deal of information is provided at the site.  It is impressive and the general overview provided is good.   One can see clearly the lie of the land – the difficulty in the terrain.

Overall is it well worth a visit.  Armed with a copy of Homage To Catalonia you get a good feel for what it must’ve been like.  You cannot escape though the sense of betrayal that Orwell unveils in HTC.  Militias were fighting for a new society armed with outdated weapons.  Yet not so far away, behind the front lines, the police and Guardia Civil were being armed with the latest weaponry for the eventual purpose of suppressing the revolution.

See also Ruta Orwell Monegros

Written by Kevin Doyle

October 12, 2009 at 10:26 am

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