A Morning in Barcelona

  • Posted: March 2, 2016
  • Category: Politics
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Barcelona has to be the epicenter of hip in Spain. Even in early February there are packs of young people washing through the Old Town District like schools of fish, identical and moving as one while turning abruptly for reasons invisible to the outside eye. One can only imagine the summer when a hot sun allows Barcelona’s beaches, stretching for 3 ½ miles, to teem with tens of acres of bare human flesh, glistening with sweat and oil. One hesitates to associate hedonism with Spain, but if there is an oasis of indulgence in the austere Iberian peninsula, it is in Barcelona.

My wife and I stayed in Barcelona for nearly a week at a hotel along the La Rambla Boulevard, the long tree lined pedestrian mall in the center of Barcelona’s Old Town. We became partial to a 2nd floor breakfast nook cantilevered out over that long mall. Sitting at a small table by the window drinking coffee, watching the panorama below us, we could take in a small slice of life in Barcelona, unobserved.

The rhythms of downtown Barcelona, probably most European cities, are different from my experience of American cities. European cities seem so much more alive. There is a constant parade of ever-present municipal workers, police, street janitors, maintenance people, etc. These people of the city are always visible, alone, in pairs, in groups. Every morning we watched a middle-aged woman sweeping the sidewalk beneath us. She was not a bent and stooped crone, made haggard by life and faded dreams, but a strikingly handsome and well groomed figure, only her yellow vest distinguishing her from the well dressed ladies walking alongside.

As we often do when visiting a new city, we rode the double decker tour buses around Barcelona. We have found these hop on/hop off buses a practical and inexpensive way to see a city. They allow a convenient way to sample the flavor of a city and its people. Of course Barcelona is like most European cities with a wealth of museums and cathedrals, but what Barcelona takes pride in are the facilities from its recent Summer Olympics (1992) and the buildings designed by her favorite son, the architect Antoni Gaudi.

The Olympic facilities are attractive. The buildings in the city designed by Antoni Gaudi (pronounced gaudy) are over the top. They are in an art nouveau style, truly one of a kind. Gaudi’s architectural style reminds me of Salvador Dali’s paintings, Gahan Wilson’s cartoons or Tim Burton’s movies (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman). Perhaps the premier tourist attraction in Barcelona is the cathedral (actually a basilica) designed by Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia.

I admit to being a bit blasé about Europe’s cathedrals. On the one hand they are awesome structures, a testament to past engineering and construction. They remind those who look past the “selfie” opportunity, of a deep faith becoming more alien to Europe’s citizens every day. But in truth, there are a lot of cathedrals and they tend to look alike to the non-specialist. Not so the Sagrada Familia. Its use of light and complex geometries in its construction is something to see. The sculptures are in starkly different but oddly harmonious styles. The Sagrada Familia is unique. Don’t miss it. Go inside. Be prepared to spend a lot of time.

But in the course of a week’s time, the museums, the tour buses and the cafes, even Gaudi’s architecture, began to blur together and we felt the need to find something a bit different. One of the things that had puzzled me during our time in Spain had been a complete silence about the Spanish Civil War. This was true not only in Barcelona, but in the other Spanish cities we visited; Madrid, Cordoba & Salamanca. But in Barcelona, in the City Center, this was a bit like touring Gettysburg, Charleston or Chattanooga without hearing about the American Civil War. Perhaps the tour guides in Charleston would have referred to The War of Northern Aggression instead of the Civil War, but it would have been mentioned.

One morning seized with a burst of creative energy, I struggled out of my museum induced fatigue and googled Barcelona, civil war sites. And so it was that I found Nick Lloyd, an ex-pat Brit, living for the past thirty years in Barcelona. Nick L. makes a living by among other things giving guided tours of Spanish Civil War sites in Barcelona. “ Sign me up”, I said. My wife agreed to go along, even displaying a guarded enthusiasm.

And so it was on a cold and brisk February morning, we found ourselves bundled up along the edge of Barcelona’s Catalunya Plaza, the city’s headquarters for tour buses, African street vendors of fake handbags and Barcelona’s citizens with time on their hands. Nick L. had told us where to meet and we soon found our tour, a small eclectic group of people hanging together amid the swirls of other people on the square looking by turns, Asian, Spanish and American clueless.

We spent the next four hours in the company of this very small group and it was a great experience. Standing there looking over the idlers, the fake Gucci handbags and departing tour buses, Nick L. pointed out overlooked pock marks in buildings bordering the plaza. They were bullet holes, weathered holes in the building’s walls an inch in diameter and depth.

The windows on the large store near where we walked were decorated with the outline of large apples, a bite missing, the familiar logo of Apple. This sleek brightly lit Apple store on the corner happens to be the 2nd largest one in Europe. Eighty years before large portraits of Lenin and Stalin had hung in the windows, looking out over the plaza. Across the plaza and down a few blocks is a non-descript apartment building looking like so many in Barcelona. Eighty years ago it became the headquarters of the Gestapo in Barcelona after the Nationalist forces took the city. Large swastikas would have hung from the sides and lazily waved over a very different Barcelona than the one we stood in. One wonders if there remain strange stains in some of the rooms.

I began the tour with only dim preconceptions of the Spanish Civil War, an event which does not loom large in the modern American consciousness, even one as obsessed with history as myself. My faintly remembered understanding was of a vicious little war in Spain of uncertain origin during the 1930’s. What I remembered of the Spanish Civil War was Earnest Hemingway and the Condor Legion, Spanish fascists facing off against Spanish communists in a prelude to the cataclysm that was WWII. The fascists were simply puppets for Nazi Germany, with the communist’s being puppets of Joseph Stalin’s Russia.

Forming a backdrop in my mind was an impression of the 1930’s as an era infected with a madness in the air, some polluting virus that made communism seem a good idea to mostly young and soft-headed idealists. In keeping with the tenor of the times, hundreds of young romantics from England and America had gone to Spain, volunteering to fight in the communist cause. As one might expect, the members of the creative community interviewed and quoted by the New York Times over the years looked back at the Spanish Communists with dreamy nostalgia.

However, the side supported by Nazi Germany, the Right or the Nationalists as they called themselves, had won the war. But by some quirk of fate Spain did not join the war as an ally of Germany, instead becoming a loyal ally of the United States after WWII. Spain had been a “good country” during the Cold War, a NATO ally. The leader of the winning Spanish armies, Francisco Franco, became its President and was a contemporary on equal terms with such post-war names as Charles DeGaulle, Conrad Adenaur, Willie Brandt, etc. Franco had been an “anti-communist” and in Cold War Europe that had been enough.

The time I spent listening to Nick L. that morning gave me food for thought as well as being entertaining. It wasn’t that he made the Spanish Civil War loom larger in world affairs or that he was intent on grinding axes I thought in need of sharpening. As we walked through the city, Nick L. pointed out building after building, each with a little vignette about what happened there and how it fitted into the bigger scheme of Spanish things back then. As I listened and walked it was hard for me not to connect the picture of that past to our present time. I could not escape a sad meditation on the themes that endlessly repeat in a sad rhythm through the history of humanity, the hard choices, the broken promises, the punishment of the innocent and the escape from punishment for the guilty.

Newspaper headlines at the time could have talked of a “Spanish Spring”. It was so like the “Arab Spring” of our own time. Centuries of dictatorship and authoritarian rule abruptly ended, a king abdicated and an elected government became a reality. The Left, including the typical grouping of factory workers, peasants, urban youth without jobs and academics, rejoiced in the new freedom. The Universal Brotherhood of Man was now at hand. Words like “democracy”, “human rights” and “equality” were salted in every newspaper article and conversation.

There were large numbers of other Spanish citizens, equally glad to see the departure of the dictators, but they weren’t so sure about these things. We remember these people as The Right, including the equally typical groupings of the Army, the Church, the wealthy and the middle class. The Right feared anarchy, particularly so as many on the Left proudly called themselves “Anarchists”. The Right remembered how celebrations of the Brotherhood of Man in the streets had turned out in the past, Paris of 1789 and the Moscow of 1917.

The Right and the Left practiced politics, existing in uneasy harmony for a few years until 1936 when the Left narrowly won a national election. Taking the narrow victory for a broad mandate, the Left moved to bring the bright new day into reality. Faced with this usurpation of power, at least from their perspective, the Army reacted as they almost always do. The generals staged a coup and assumed power for “the good of the country”.

The Left went into the streets as they almost always do, rioting, burning and looting. All those urban youth without jobs weren’t going to miss the opportunity for some fun and profit. In addition, the Left had been carefully accumulating weapons in secret and now they brought them out. Within days, Spain was at war, a civil war.

While there were soldiers, police and armed rebels throughout the country, they had little experience of battle, loyalties were uncertain and the success of the coup was uncertain. In the days that followed, the coup failed in many places. Some 2/3’s of Spain remained in the democratically elected government’s control. But of course there existed a small force of combat troops. There was a colonial army across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa, commanded by a young officer named Francisco Franco, practiced in guerilla fighting or “asymmetric warfare” as it is known today. After using extreme prejudice to rid any unsympathetic officers, Franco was able to move Spain’s colonial army from Morocco to Spain courtesy of the German Luftwaffe. The Spanish Civil War began in earnest.

The Spanish Civil War, like all wars, is remembered in simple terms, the “Good Guys” against the “Bad Guys”. That small group of people who remember do so through the lens of our biases. They will tell you that the Spanish Civil War was about a democratically elected liberal government being overthrown by an extreme right coup, supported by the unspeakably evil Nazi Germany. The coup against the Allende government in Chili in 1973 was just another replay of the same situation.

No, that is not true others will say. The Spanish Civil War was about preventing a godless Communist takeover of Spain. The Spanish Civil War prevented a replay of the horrors in Soviet Russia, Moscow in 1917. They will remind us of George Santayana, who so memorably said, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Interestingly enough, George Santayana was a Spaniard, born in Madrid, but fortunately for Santayana, he lived in Rome during the years of the Spanish Civil War.

The point is – what history was Santayana talking about? History, like Truth, is a slippery thing. What are we to remember and what lessons are we to draw from history? Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as one of our most honored and revered Presidents. Those of us who have pursued a study of history outside the peculiar looking glass of the school classroom might suspect that the American Civil War started in a similar way. Abraham Lincoln won election in a narrow victory, extremists like John Brown took advantage of that fact and the South reacted in fear. How is that so different from how the Spanish Civil War started?

Civil wars, religious wars, ideological wars are fuzzy. Clausewitz’s “fog of war” refers to the uncertainty of the battlefield. But there is also a dense fog enveloping the identity and motives of the belligerents. The democratically elected government of Spain in 1936 said all the right things, at least its moderate spokesmen did. They were for education, women’s rights, equality, etc., but they were also pulling priests out of churches and executing them. The “Left” of the Spanish Civil War was composed of many different groups, many of them calling themselves “communists”. There were several flavors of communists, only one of which, the smallest, was loyal to Moscow.

But once the war started, both sides needed the tools of modern warfare; guns, planes, tanks, etc. The liberal right thinking countries of the world, with the means to do so, refused to throw gasoline on the fire. Britain, France and the United States refused to sell weapons to either side. So what were the Spanish do? The Right called on countries sympathetic to their cause, the anti-communists among their neighbors. Italy and Germany both stepped forward with aid, weapons and “advisors”.

The Left pleaded with Britain, France and the United States to no avail. But Moscow was willing to deal. There was just one little prerequisite, easily met, to Moscow’s aid however. You can probably guess what that little prerequisite was. From then on, that small group of communists, loyal to Moscow, moved into more suitable quarters on Catalunya Plaza and their advice was most respectfully listened to. In an old story often told, members of the Left unsympathetic to Moscow’s direction began to suffer unfortunate ends.

One of the sites that Nick L. took us to was a small square adjoining a church. When we arrived that morning, the courtyard was full of teenagers being warmed up for the appearance of a local celebrity by people on a temporary platform with microphones. As we struggled to hear, Nick L. took us back in time some eighty years. As he talked, he pointed out the walls of the church. The stone walls were damaged, chunks missing with deep scoring along the wall.

He related the story, an urban myth, that had grown up in the city of Barcelona. In the wake of the Nationalist victory, it was said in the city that damage to the wall was made by the bullets of firing squads. It was said that many priests had been put in front of this wall and executed. He reminded us of how the bullet holes in the buildings along Catalunya Plaza had looked. To my untrained eye, the damage did look significantly different from that done by individual bullets. This wall looked as if it had been attacked by jackhammers.

The truth about the damage to the wall, as he told it, was indeed different than the urban myth. It was indeed true that many priests in Barcelona had been executed by firing squad. But the executions were not done here. The priests had been shot up in the hills, avoiding upset to the sensitivities of the faithful and sensation for the many foreign journalists in the city.

Instead, during the war, this church had served as an orphanage. One Sunday, an Italian bomber had dropped a bomb there, killing and injuring many of the children. Emergency workers and bystanders had rushed to the scene to help with the hurt and injured. While the square full with this frenzied scene, another bomb hit the square. The damage to the church wall is scoring from the shrapnel of those two bombs. Forty-two people died in the square that day, thirty of them children.

Imagine the scene that Sunday in January. People are wearing their Sunday clothes. But there are also splashes of red blood turning brown on the rocks and the acrid smell of cordite in the air. The screams of the wounded, the crying wails of women and children, fill our ears. There are people in the square, some bent over still figures, others walking around in a daze.

Then comes an eerie wailing, the siren sound of a Stuka dive bomber. The makers of the Stuka dive bomber siren had fitted an air siren to increase the psychological effect of its attack, to increase the terror of its attack. The wailing scream of the Stuka makes the people in the square look up, then run for whatever looks to offer safety. Then the explosion. Then more red splashes in the square, more screams and wailing, more crumpled bodies. A YouTube video of a diving Stuka is at:


We are horrified by what happened in this square in Barcelona on Jan. 30, 1938. How can people do this to each other, to innocent children? Surely we, the people of the United States, in our country are better than this. But then I remember the incendiary fire bomb raids on Dresden and Tokyo less than ten years later. The air crews of the Allied bombers on their low level bombing runs wore oxygen masks so that the smell of burning human flesh ignited by the white phosphorus did not make them vomit. And then I remember watching the Nightly News, Walter Cronkite’s voice in my ears, of F-4 fighter bombers turning the jungle into long swathes of napalm fueled flame. And then I remember more recently, F-16 air strikes into Middle Eastern cities and factoids scrolling across Fox News of drone strikes in Pakistan.

William Tecumseh Sherman, watching the city of Atlanta burn, said that, “War is hell.” But a warning more appropriate to us, to me, in our own time comes from another general, Robert E. Lee. Standing next to James Longstreet, he watched his men decimate line after line of helpless Federal troops on the killing fields of Fredericksburg saying, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

I fear that we have grown fond of war in the United States, because we see so little of its terribleness and are so sure of our rightness. We understand the need to fight wars pressed upon us. But we pray for leaders strong enough to make the decision to loose the dogs of war and wise enough to know the time. But we fool ourselves, to our own damage, if we think our hands free of such atrocity.

We ended our tour in a small out of the way café and Nick L. told us the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. The Spanish Civil War ended as all wars do. Eventually. The Left lost and the Right won. In a wave of refugees fleeing from reprisal and the economic wasteland that was now their land after the war, nearly half a million Spanish people crossed the border into France within days.  It is difficult not to think of the current refugee crisis in Europe as waves of refugees from Syria and other places crowd into Europe. It is the peculiar nearsightedness of our own time that we think this current wave of refugees something new and unprecedented in Europe.

France could not stop this wave of refugees, but they could and did concentrate them into camps. Perhaps the word “concentrate” is tendentious, for the Germans were to give new meaning to the word only a few short years later, but thousands of Spanish refugees died in these camps of disease and malnutrition anyway. So bad were the conditions, many returned to Spain, enduring famine and reprisal, rather than stay.

Those who remained in France endured the concentration camps and persevered. As we are reminded today, France does not welcome outsiders, even tourists are treated with disdain. These refugees from Spain were no exception, but eventually they made their way out of the camps and began to find new life in France rather than returning to the horror that was Franco’s Spain.

The story of the Spanish expatriates told by Nick L. was by turns hopeful and sad, as well as casting a flickering light on the role of France in WWII. Examining the French experience and conduct during the German occupation in WWII can be a depressing story. But the contribution of the Spanish refugees is one of its few bright spots.

It turns out that a greatly disproportionate part of the Resistance activities in the south of France were carried out by those same Spanish refugees. But in an old photograph shown by Nick L. the pride and the tragedy of the Spanish exiles came home in a special way. One of the remembered and greatly heart warming photographs of WWII is of a Free French armored column coming up the Champ Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe. It is a picture of freedom, of French troops returning to liberate Paris from the hated Nazis. After years of darkness and terror France’s own soldiers return to liberate and free their homeland.

Nick L. had some 8 ½ x 11 size copies of this picture and a few others that put this story of hope redeemed in an interesting light. He pointed out something easily missed. The names and slogans that the crews had painted on their vehicles were in the Spanish (Catalan) language, rather than in French.

We have forgotten the complexities of that time. Charles DeGaulle, the leader and face of Free France was larger than life; egotistical, proud and intensely jealous of anything that might dim France’s glory. He vaunted the French fighting spirit and proud history. But when it came time for DeGaulle’s moment on the stage, when Free France had to put up or shut up, he picked his best combat troops, Phillippe LeClerc’s 2nd Armored Division. Some, less than bedazzled by the French mystique than myself, might make the snide observation that the 2nd Armored happened to be DeGaulle’s only combat troops.

We cannot say with any certainty how much of the 2nd Armored was made up of Spanish refugees from the concentration camps since virtually all of the Spanish expatriates with Free French forces used assumed names, fearing persecution and discrimination. They were men with enemies on all sides, both in front of them and behind. As you might imagine, there has been little desire in France to dig too deeply into such matters. But the pictures and the oral histories make clear that a large portion of the 2nd Armored were Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s Spain.

Forgotten also was that these men of the 2nd Armored as well as the men and women of the Resistance, fought because of a hope, a promise of future freedom. When the Germans and the Italians were defeated, it was understood that they would be allowed to lead the liberation of Spain from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, with free elections to be held under the victorious Allied umbrella. As even that anemic history taught in the classroom tells us, this promise was never fulfilled. The refugees, the men of the 2nd Armored, the Resistance, were betrayed, again.

Other photos, of past times, in Nick L.’s tour caused another and equally sad reflection. There is a shot of the Sagrada Familia with a large column of black smoke rising beside it. In our earlier tour of the Sagrada Familia, the premier tourist attraction in Barcelona, there was an exhibit of the plaster models that Gaudi had used as construction models. At some past time, the construction models had been broken into small pieces and glued back together, with non-original plaster making up a large portion of the reconstruction. The exhibit vaguely mentioned a fire that had damaged Gaudi’s workshop some years ago.

A question to Nick L. confirmed a sad reality. A mob in 1936, after the defeat of the coup in Barcelona, had burned and vandalized Gaudi’s workshop facilities. Churches had been burned and vandalized and as mentioned above, many of the priests, in Barcelona and elsewhere, had been executed as well. The Left had a deep and abiding hatred of the Church.

Why this hatred shown the Catholic Church, Christ’s representative in Spain? It was a time in Barcelona and elsewhere when church services were outlawed. Christians met only in secret, in private homes, for fear of their lives. A cursory Google search provides ample evidence of the Spanish Republicans hatred for the Church. There are many photos from that time of vandalized churches, desecrated sacramental vessels and broken up statuary, mute evidence of a deep running hatred.

Of course, there is the easy explanation suggesting itself. The Spanish Republicans were godless communists. Of course they hated Christianity. Except the Left, the Spanish Republicans, weren’t godless communists to begin with. The godless communists from Moscow gradually took over the leadership as time went on because they were the only help the Spanish Republicans had. In the beginning, the hateful vandalism, the executions and the mob rampages through the churches was done by ordinary people at the bottom of the social ladder, i.e. factory workers and peasants. Such a deep anger does not happen overnight. It takes generations to build up such reservoirs of hate.

It is a sad judgment of history that in Spain, the Church became the ally of a government that cruelly oppressed its people. The followers of Jesus charged with protecting the powerless, feeding the poor and bringing light into a dark world did the opposite. The Church became so intertwined with the government that the people could not tell the difference.

From the days of Constantine, institutional Christianity has been tempted to get into bed with the State. Whether the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Russia or Jerry Falwell, the temptation to use the power of the State to further the Kingdom has ensnared Christianity again and again. But it is hard to find places in human history where Christianity’s flirtation with political power has been a good thing, for the State or for the Kingdom.

I am glad that I live in the United States with Freedom of and from Religion. I am glad that I am an Evangelical Christian, free from institutional churches that seem ever sucked into dark compromise with Caesar. But then I am reminded of the current election and the Evangelical vote. The Republican Party takes us for granted, a political party not exactly associated with compassion, charity and concern for the poor. Whether we support Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz or another, Evangelicals trade our votes, as we have in the past, for empty promises on abortion or military spending or gay marriage or lower taxes, or immigration reform or . . . .

Perhaps we might ask our Presidential candidates to spend a few hours walking through Barcelona with Nick Lloyd. Perhaps on this walk, they might pause to look at the scored walls of the Placa de Sant Felip Neri where the orphans lay dying or the broken models of the Sagrada Familia. Perhaps on this walk, they might consider the consequences of inflaming the passions of their followers, of stoking their fears and making alliances with the devil. Things can get out of hand.

Perhaps more of our young citizens known for their idealistic passion for progressive ideals might spend less time posting Sagrada Familia “selfies” on Facebook and engage with the lessons to be found on the streets of Barcelona. The mindless passions of idealistic youth are the fuel feeding the furnace of nightmare. Chilling views of idealistic youth are on display in two separate YouTube videos;





Hitler and Mussolini might be little remembered Depression Era politicians without the armies of young people inspired by notions of glory and racial purity who followed them. Lenin, Stalin, Mao and a host of lesser-known demons worked their nightmares in the world because numberless legions of young people were enamored by the idea of a classless society of equals. These idealistic young people spent their youth butchering each other and millions upon millions of innocent victims across Spain and then across the Eastern Front.

There was a prophet of God named Hosea who warned the leaders and people of his own time with words that still resonate; “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”


Marina Ginesta


Photo – Marina Ginesta, aged 17, overlooking Catalunya Plaza in Barcelona, 1936 – Standing atop the Hotel Colon where Apple now has their store. She worked as a translator for a Russian journalist writing for Pravda. This picture was in newspapers around the world at the time and has been on the cover of at least two books on the Spanish Civil War.

3 Responses to “A Morning in Barcelona”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    Many things in the world do not change. Cubans will

    do anything TO GET TO FREEDOM IN FLA USA. Obama will not arm

    the Syrian rebels thus a power vacuum that is filled by the Russians.

    What has changed, a recent poll asked 18 to 28 years old “do we need

    troops on the ground to defeat ISIS?” 78% said yes but only 18%

    said they would enlist in the military to do the job.

  2. Barry Burr says:

    My wife and I will vacation in Venice, Paris, and Barcelona very soon. Thanks for your very interesting article.

    Even for well-read people, it is difficult to know which side to support and futile to even try. Maybe the best hope is to understand enough history to recognize bad situations in time for an escape.

  3. rex says:

    Bill, thank you for the astute history lesson….reminding us all once again of the frailty of the human condition.

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