When We Lost Catalonia, Colltalers
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish civil war, the seminal event that led Francisco Franco to power, after crushing a democratic elected leftist coalition. It was arguably the last great revolution to polarize the world in two clearly defined sides.
One, the Republicans, attracted unprecedented global support from progressive forces and artists, who defined their lives and times by the idealistic (Quixotic?) fight for restoring democracy in Spain. The other, the winner side, was that of Franco, helped by Nazis and fascists.
The world was never to be so cleanly ideologically split. Even WWII, which followed, took years of political calculation by world powers before enlisting to it, (while Germany was already engaged in racial cleansing), to become the war won by the ‘just’ side.
Not that eight decades have taught us much. After a particularly gruesome week in America, with race and hatred-tinged murders, the world responded in kind the following one, with the horrific trunk rampage in Nice, and the attempt coup in Turkey early Saturday.
The anniversary of the Franco’s uprising in Spain offers a rare glance at how an uncomplicated a fight for justice and restoring the rule of law could be then. Such an approach would be unpractical these days, of course, with the complex motivations that lead nations to war, and the kind of resistance they create and have to fight back, as Daesh, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are eager to show.
When it became clear that Spanish republicans were going to be crushed by generous support of the Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s Black Shirts, it was one of those historical moments when intellectuals, artists, and humanists the world over felt personally accountable to a positive outcome which was not to be: Franco not just won but ruled unchallenged until his peaceful death of old age in 1975.
His campaign of horror left half a million Spaniards and freedom fighters dead, including one of Spain’s most celebrated authors, Federico Garcia Lorca, shot and anonymously
buried in mass grave by Franco’s ruthless supporters. Other three world known artists were to become forever linked to the Spanish Civil War, but thankfully survived it: Catalan Pablo Picasso, British George Orwell, and American Ernest Hemingway.
As with the Holocaust and similar tragedies, the world was slow to take notice of what was going on, and until Robert Capa’s dramatic pics came out, even liberal forces were oblivious to the Spanish plight. Not Picasso, though, who created one of the greatest depictions of the horrors of war, and his most powerful political statement: the painting of Guernica, about the 1937 aerial raid by German bombers.
But even if ultimately the sacrifice of thousands was not sufficient to prevent the installation of a long-lasting dictatorship, whose trauma Spain still struggles from recovering, the episode may have marked one of the last worldwide displays of empathy towards a cause, one that motivated idealists of all colors to join the fight and eventually be blown to pieces in the name of human rights and decency.
It’s a sharp contrast with the wars of our age, most of them we have no idea what they’re supposed to accomplish, when they may end, if ever, and what cause are they serving, other than that of weapon manufactures and merchants, or ideologues with no skin in the game.
To many, the 1968 Prague Spring, or even the so-called Arab Spring, a few years ago, had a similar feeling, both mirroring Spain even in the way they were crushed, and wound up littered with even more corpses that we could possibly identify and empathize with. But while the Czech people have indeed managed, like the Spanish, to build a democratic nation on the ruins of misery, the Middle East, well…
The attempted coup in Turkey, while not giving anyone reason for supporting it aside from military ego maniacs, would have not much reason for any idealistic grieving over it either. For some time now, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has promoted a confrontational agenda that has puzzled even his Islamic supporters, despite an increased radicalized religious zealotry and censorship of the press.
Perhaps in modern times, the only other revolution that attracted progressives, not because of a charismatic Fidel Castro-type of political leader, but in support of a liberal idea was the one the Sandinistas conducted in Nicaragua, despite fierce opposition from the U.S.
They did manage an institutional reboot of the country, without turning into the oppressors like Anastasio Somoza that they defeated. But the comparisons must stop right there, as Central America as a whole remains as economically impaired as Europe, and Spain, never were.
There will never be a good, wholesome justification to war, or to send the young to die on behalf of those who should know better. No cause or ideology, much less religion, can possibly be better off by the endless string of mourned cadavers and the kin they leave behind.
Something captured by the short-lived Spanish Republic though, as with the Wiemar Republic too, was enough to engage the best minds of the age to treasure and, later, attempt to preserve them. Most paid dearly with their own lives, so others would live and not forget it.
War is a different animal nowadays, done with high precision and maximum impact packed in each devastating blow. It’s also more undiscriminated, both in motivation and geography. The decision to wage one now rarely involves the defense of an ideal, or correcting of a wrong inflicted against a vulnerable people, race, or beauty. The misery of the art of killing is more lethal as it is less acknowledged.
As we brace for a new week, hoping that another episode of unbearable carnage is not at the ready to pounce at us all, at the least expected moment, we can again remind each other how monsters such as Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and so many others come to be. And how we’re breeding them and their followers by our disengagement, obliviousness, lack of empathy with the still breathing and living.
For as much as the memory of the dead and how they died may be inspirational and healing, it’s the fully alive that should be the target of our compassion and relentless pursuit of a, yes, Quixotic quest to achieve peace in this world. Stay safe and survive. WC
Just one, tiny, little nitpick.
“Other two world known artists were to become forever linked to the Spanish Civil War, but thankfully survived it: Catalan Pablo Picasso and American Ernest Hemingway.”
Someone, perhaps even more important than either of the artists you mention – mainly because he dedicated a book to the conflict, recounting the active role he played – was George Orwell. “Homage to Catalonia” is a brilliant read.
I know it was an unintentional slip-up, Wesley, but in this case, one well-worth pointing out.
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Absolutely, I can’t believe I forgot about old’ Eric, one of my all time favs. I’ll make a correction and thank you so much, Bryan. Cheers
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