Remembering Belchite, the Anarchist Movement, and the International Brigades

In the early summer of 1936 Belchite was a prosperous Aragonese farming community with a population of 3,516. Although initiatives pushed forward by the Republican government such as agrarian reform had angered local landowners and the Church, the mayor of the town was a socialist and member of the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores). However, local republican authorities often pushed reforms to extremes: members of the clergy were often banned from teaching in areas that had no alternative school system and in some towns the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter was prohibited. As one writer put it, “To one half of the population, Spain was on the threshold of a brave new world. To the other, it was teetering on the brink of the abyss.”(1) When news of the July military uprising reached Belchite, the fragile atmosphere of tolerance that had existed among the town’s opposing factions deteriorated. Local Falangist sympathizers and disaffected police officers went on a rampage, detaining the socialist mayor Mariano Castillo Carrasco, who committed suicide on July 31 after writing a lengthy letter expressing his fervent desire that his blood be the last to be shed,(2) and assassinating members of his family and various other townspeople. Similar incidents occurred in other towns throughout the zone. The new mayors imposed by these groups were expected to unfailingly toe the nationalist political line: in a maneuver reminiscent of the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, Victorián Lafoz y Benedí, the new mayor of the nearby town La Puebla de Albortón, was accused of being a mason and later assassinated simply for refusing to condone the shooting of citizens considered by the anti-Republican faction to be “Reds.”(3)

The Republican government relied on armed anarchist unions to suppress the anti-government rebellion in rural Aragon. These organizations subsequently filled the political and administrative vacuum left by the bloodletting, although their efforts to “revolutionize” the local economy only served to further polarize factions within rural communities and raise the level of tensions between neighbors even higher. The most powerful of these groups in 1936 was the CNT (Confederación de Trabajo). Its affiliates served on sixty-six of the eighty-three new municipal councils created in the region and the mayors of twenty-three municipalities in Aragon were members of the CNT. Its closest political rival was the UGT, with representatives in forty-three councils and sixteen mayors. These union-based parties were followed by Izquierda Republicana, which had representatives in eighteen municipal councils, the Socialist party with representatives in five, the Communist Party with representatives in three, and Unión Republicana with representation in only one. (4)

Representatives of the CNT and the FAI (Federación Anarchista Ibérica) formed an administrative council, the Consejo de Aragón, which quickly set about reorganizing rural Aragonese society, establishing farming collectives and a barter system, negotiating commercial agreements to meet local needs with industries in other provinces of Spain and abroad, and creating a regional bus service that connected towns throughout the province; in short, attempting to create a regional agrarian utopia that undermined private commerce and was to a great extent incongruous with the central government’s efforts to put down the military uprising. This video (with English voiceover and subtitles), which includes an interview with two former CNT militants now in their 90s, provides a general picture of the issues at stake and documents the CNT’s tendency to devote more energy to its rearguard peasant revolution than the frontline battle against the well-trained and disciplined insurgents. The Consejo, which was often at odds with other political parties and factions in the region, broadly overstepped its authority to carry out regional government functions related to information, propaganda, commerce, transport, public order and justice, and labor and began to staunchly defend its “indisputable right . . . to direct its own affairs in conformity with its characteristics, political temperament and the economic field (sic).”(5) a posture that clearly signaled its pretensions to serve as a permanent, independent authority in the province. In the summer of 1937, President Nerin dispatched several battalions of the International Brigades under the command of Enrique Lister to Aragon to disband the Council and bring some order to the region in preparation for a major offensive on the Ebro. The government in Madrid hoped to divert some of the Nationalist forces that were closing in on Santander and eventually capture the city of Saragossa, the communications hub for the greater part of northern Spain. The anarchist Council of Aragon, which had uncharacteristically imposed a collective social model, meekly turned authority over to the Communist General Enrique Lister, who uncharacteristically returned all collectivized property back to its original owners and went on with preparations to secure positions along the Ebro front. One of the towns that lay in this new area of operations along the Ebro was Belchite, strategically situated on a high plain 50 kilometers from the provincial capital and defended by a corps of 2,000 Nationalist troops.(6)

The battle for Belchite began on August 24. Both sides had orders not to retreat and the fighting was fierce. The town’s food and water supplies were quickly exhausted, but the Nationalist defenders held out for thirteen days in the unrelenting August heat. The soldiers of the International Brigades were forced to open small breaches in the defensive walls and storm the town building by building. The human suffering was dreadful. The town’s newly elected mayor, Ramon Trallero, died during a mortar attack on September 2, but the exhausted and dwindling defensive force did not surrender until September 7. (7) The Republican victory would be fleeting. Santander fell to the Nationalist army and the offensive against Saragossa ground to a halt. By mid-March 1938, Belchite was once again under Nationalist control and the Republic forces were in full retreat. Determined to make the town a national symbol, General Francisco Franco decreed that the Belchite would forever remain in ruins as a monument to the horrors of war and forced Republican prisoners of war to build a new town only meters away. Various families continued to live in the old town surrounded by the shells of abandoned buildings until the mid-1960s, when the last resisters finally relocated to “Nuevo Belchite.” The rain and the fierce winds of Aragon slowly reduced the heavily damaged clay brick rubble that one sees today. Following the general trend throughout rural Spain, many Belchitans gradually moved away to larger urban areas in search better employment opportunities. The population of the present Belchite stands at fewer than 1,700, a far cry from the 3,516 recorded in the original town in 1936.

The vanquished could not begin to tell their side of the story until the death of Franco in November 1975, but even then a national “pact of forgetting” greatly inhibited public discussion of the events that altered the lives of the people of Belchite forever. As most local people prefer to avoid discussion of a period so fraught with human miscalculation, vengeance, and suffering, the history of the Battle of Belchite has more or less become the property of the aging veterans of the International Brigades who fought there and foreigners interested in the Republican cause. In spite of their failure to save the Spanish Republic, the volunteers of the International Brigade never lost their sense of having done something unique and heroic. In her farewell speech to the departing foreign troops in November 1938, Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria” envisaged their historical importance, “You can go proudly,” she assured them. “You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.” (8)

It was, indeed, a period in which other nations calculated the risks of engagement and speculated about the outcome. While political leaders in the free world prevaricated, bowed to the short-term interests of bankers and industrialists, nervously turned a blind eye to fascist aggression, and hoped for the best, the men and women of the International Brigades clearly understood that what they fought was not the “proxy war” the Non-Invention Pact made it out to be, but rather the first military confrontation in a long war between supporters of two diametrically opposed social paradigms that would be fought until only one prevailed.

The Axis powers gained expertise and confidence in Spain. However, fearful of the Republic’s left-wing political complexion, one country after another refused to provide civil and military supplies to a legitimately elected government and many surreptitiously backed the military insurgents who sought to bring it down. Historian Anthony Beevor estimated that Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors provided as many as 12,000 trucks to the Nationalist forces, noting that José Maria Doussinague, Spanish Foreign Ministry undersecretary under Franco, once remarked, “without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the Civil War.”(9) Franco’s decision to crush all vestiges of the Republic, its institutions, and the social change it brought about methodically, rather than bring the civil war to a rapid conclusion, gave these countries time to reconsider their policies, but the idea of a leftist state on the map of Europe was unthinkable to them. Ironically, only a few years after the fall of the Second Spanish Republic, these same countries would accept the Soviet Union as a full ally in their own war against the Axis powers and even eventually concede it hegemony over the whole of Eastern Europe. By means of its alliance with the leaders of the military insurgence, Germany gained privileged access to the Spanish wolfram it needed for its arms production, a factor that significantly prolonged the war in Europe and cost millions of lives. One will never know how many lives sacrificed on the beaches of Normandy or lost in the Mediterranean theater might have been spared if the Allied forces could have operated from friendly Spanish ports and bases along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, its outlying islands, and its possessions in North Africa. For Spanish society, the price of this prevarication would be decades of economic, social, and political stultification under the curious autarchical regime of Francisco Franco Bahamonde.

Lost or previously suppressed documents concerning the Spanish Republic, the civil war that brought it to an end, and the thirty-six year totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco are continually coming to light. The work of historians and sociologists devoted to this period of Spanish history is far from complete. So is the process of healing in towns like Belchite, where a fairly new reproduction of the Falangist yoke and arrows symbol decorates the facade of a house in the new town, and an old message scrawled on a sheet of metal propped up at the entrance of one of the churches in the old town mourns that “no one now hears the voices of fathers singing jotas.”(10)

The mother of Catalan songwriter-singer Joan Manuel Serrat was born and raised in Belchite. A number of Serrat’s songs are homages to family members who were persecuted or assassinated for their Republican beliefs. In “La Abuelita de Kundera“, he compares his grandmother’s life in Belchite to the life of Milos Kundera’s grandmother in another village far away in Czechoslovakia:

La abuelita de Kundera y también la mía
conocían cada yerba y sus aplicaciones,
sabían lo que tenían dentro los colchones,
sabían leer el cielo y cocer el pan.
La abuelita de Kundera en su pueblo checo
y la mía en su Belchite y las dos sabían
que el cura era el confidente de la policía.
Nada tenía secretos a su alrededor.
 
Kundera’s granny and mine as well
knew every wild herb and how to use it,
knew what was tucked into their mattresses,
knew how to read the sky and make bread.
Kundera’s granny in her Czech village
and mine in Belchite: both of them knew
the town priest was a police informer.
Nothing was secret in those places.(11)

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Notes:

1 “Band of Brothers” The Sunday Times Oct. 21, 2007 Chris Haslam
2 http://www.fpabloiglesias.es/archivo-y-biblioteca/diccionario-biografico/biografias/3958_castillo-carrasco-mariano
3 “La Comarca de Campo de Belchite en la Época Contemporánea” De la Historia Ángel Alcalde Fernández http://www.aragon.es/estaticos/GobiernoAragon/Departamentos/PoliticaTerritorialJusticiaInterior/Documentos/docs/Areas/Informaci%C3%B3n%20territorial/Publicaciones/Coleccion_Territorio/Comarca%20Belchite/BelchiteII_EpocaContemporanea.pdf
4 The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War vol. II Robert J. Alexander pp. 806 London: Janus Publishing Co Ltd 1998
5 The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War vol. II Robert J. Alexander pp. 807 London: Janus Publishing Co Ltd 1998
6 Gran Enciclopedía Aragonesa http://www.enciclopedia-aragonesa.com/voz.asp?voz_id=2078
7 Ibid The official webpage of the town of Belchite states that the city fell on September 6. http://www.belchite.es/index.php/belchite/belchite-antiguo
8 http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/scw/farewell.htm
9 The Spanish Civil War Anthony Beevor Penguin Books 2006
10 http://www.cronicadearagon.es/wordpress/?p=2737

11 “La Abuelita de Kundera” from the CD Nadie es Perfecto 1994, Ariola (my translation)

The circa 1940 photograph to the left of the lyrics of “La Abuelita de Kundera” illustrating the street in Belchite where J.M. Serrat’s grandparents lived before the Spanish Civil War is reproduced from “En el corazón del viejo Belchite” written by Gregorio Fernández Castañon. The photograph of the road signs pointing the way to Belchite and Vinaceite is reproduced from brigadas internacionals.org.  The image of the fascist symbol still decorating the facade of a building in Belchite is reproduced from an article in Dioariocrítico.com. All other photographs illustrating this post were taken during a personal visit to Belchite in the spring of 2012.

For Spanish-speaking readers, I suggest a look at this recent article published in El País about volunteers from British Palestine who fought in the International Brigades.

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