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A word picture of Barcelona in 1937

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Arquitectura militar de la guerra civil españo...
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Since my father worked, as a manager of the Royal Bank of Canada, and lived in Barcelona during 2/3rds of the Spanish Civil War, I have often wondered how working and living conditions were there. Of course, it is factually accurate that I was born in Barcelona October 8, 1935.

This morning I googled into an essay by Albert Weisbord and encountered this word picture that seemed quite authentic and credible to me:

The appearance of Barcelona in May 1937 proclaimed unmistakably that the proletariat was now asserting itself. All the important buildings in the center of the city were occupied by workers organizations. The top floors of Hotel Oriente had been taken over by the Syndicalists and on Via Durutti (renamed after a popular Anarchist leader who fell in battle a year ago) the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.) made its headquarters in the magnificent building which formerly housed the Chamber of Commerce. Hotel Falcon had been converted into a center for the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M.), especially for its soldiers on leave from the front. On the exclusive Pasco de Gracias a beautiful building had been taken over by the Unification Socialist Party of Catalonia (P.S.U.C.) and was now the Case Karl Marx. An enormous propaganda sign covered its basement and first floor but when the fighting began in May, at once the sign had been ripped and the machine guns concealed behind it had opened fire on the revolutionary workers who were behind the barricades in the streets.

One startling innovation was the huge picture of Stalin three stories high which stared at one from the facade of the Hotel Colon, the swankiest hotel in Barcelona which had also been requisitioned by the P.S.U.C. It seems the picture had been accompanied by a picture of Lenin of similar size, but Lenin’s picture had fallen down (let those who will look for a hidden symbolism in this incident) and had never been replaced.

Las Remblas and Plaza Catalunya were a riot of color not only with the red flags of the Communists and Socialists and the red and black flags of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, but with other enormous banners and signs placed over the avenue and center of the square. Here in bright pictures and large letters the masses were called upon to fight fascism and to build a new society. The old street names had been replaced to honor Spanish revolutionists or even Russian celebrities who had caught popular fancy (such as Calle Pavlov or Calle Tolstoy).

The sunny calm that in 1932 had pervaded the city’s thoroughfares had given way to a contagious atmosphere of strain. It was civil war now in all its grimness. Many streets were still torn up where the recent barricades had been erected. The barracks of the old guards near the Columbus column were in a state of complete destruction, a reminder of the July days of 1936, with huge shell holes marking the spot where the cannon of Montjuic in the hands of the workers had smashed the resistance of the guards and had forced them to come down from the top of the column where they had placed their machine guns and to surrender.

The straw-sandaled picturesque dancers in the streets, the gay crowds hanging about the sidewalk cafes, all had vanished. Now groups stood tensely to hear the radio reports of casualties from the front and the stern directives for the citizen on how to win the war. At night all lights were out; searchlights played over the city and on every corner placards notified people where to go in case of an air raid or bombardment. Soldiers, home on leave from the front, were everywhere.

But if the old civil guards in the patent leather hats had disappeared to go with Franco, new guards and police, the Asaltos and Carbineros, had been formed by the conservative elements in the government. These bodies were now apolitical and deadly enemies of the old Workers Patrol Control which had been dominated by the trade unions and revolutionary parties. Once again there was appearing the ubiquitous spy and the night raid. Daily, nightly, individuals known to be active members of this or that revolutionary organization would simply disappear never to be seen again.

Even for the moneyed stranger life was not what it used to be. Few hotels could boast of hot water or warm baths. Food was becoming poor in quality even in the pensions and restaurants where meals were restricted to two courses with one small piece of bread per customer. For the rest of the people there were bread and milk lines while olive oil, tobacco, charcoal, soap and medical supplies had become very scarce. In general only simple fare was obtainable consisting of rabbit, muscles, plain cuts of meat and rice, the standbys of the poorer classes. Nevertheless in certain restaurants patronized by the officials and by well-to-do strangers in the know such delicacies as lobster, chicken, ice cream and strawberries might be enjoyed. Evidently Catalonia was still far from having realized the Socialist Commonwealth where all would be treated alike.

Gone were the pleasant diversions which formerly used to ease the stay of the tourists in the city. In the fashionable neighborhood near Tibidabo the buildings had been sequestered as sanitoriums or hospitals for the wounded, homes for refugees or orphaned children and similar institutions of social welfare. The cable cars, deserted, no longer operated. The fountains of Montjuic likewise were silent… who would want to spend money on colored waters when there was dire need for arms and munitions for the front and hundreds of thousands of the best blood of Spain were dying on the field of battle? The fortress of Montjuic was still there (The Anarchists had captured it for a brief moment during the fighting of the May Days) but as for the old prison, the bastille in which so many champions of the people had suffered torments in the old days, the populace of Barcelona had stormed it and released the prisoners.

As for the music halls with their accompanying prostitution, after July, 1936, when the workers had crushed the fascist revolt throughout Catalonia and were on the road to becoming the chief power, there had been a determined effort to stomp out these hotbeds of vice. Many of the pimps were killed and the women liberated. Educational posters were spread throughout the city advising the soldiers that prostitution was the disgrace of the army and the degradation of the women; it was an agency of Franco and must be stamped out. But in the months that had elapsed since then, during which the influence of the workers’ organizations was waning, there had been a general relaxation of discipline and the dance halls were now open once more with their languishing sirens. By June the Syndicalists had been ousted from Hotel Oriente where now a hot abaret flourished.

How far the revolution had emancipated the women of Spain was an intriguing question for all those who had followed the heroic participation of these women in the actual fighting in defence of their country. To what extent had the old semi-harem status of the feminine sex, so strongly rooted in the traditions of the country, actually broken down? It must be confessed that, in spite of the efforts of the progressive forces in Spain, the enlightenment of the women has not proceeded very far. In everyday life the customs of centuries still had their grip on personal relationships.

Women in Spain were still divided into two simple groups, prostitutes and respectable women, the latter consisting of cloistered virgins and fanatically loyal mates. Revolutionary soldiers could be found beating their wives and even so-called professional revolutionists were still ready to kill their life companions if they were caught conversing with other men. It is true that a certain breath of freedom has blown over the women. Its first expression have been rather freakish ones inspired by Hollywood, heads bleached blond and pained faces glaringly incongruous among the natural dark beauties of Spain. Women constituted still but a small percentage of the membership in the revolutionary organizations, and the women secretariats which had been recently appointed were having an exceedingly difficult time of it to make the men understand the need of drawing the women into the movement and the women to understand their place in the new social order.

Similarly with the school system. The Generalidad was making efforts to introduce new methods and curricula, yet in only two or three of the nine high schools of Barcelona had they succeeded to any great extent. Old fashioned methods of drill and an antiquated routine still prevailed in the rest. Attendance of children at school was not strictly enforced, although a great part of the people was still illiterate. Yet one could see that much more reading was being done on the whole by the adult population. In Las Rambles, adjacent to the flower stalls, large numbers of book stalls had now opened up selling revolutionary literature of all sorts. But it must be admitted that among the serious pamphlets and books, “literature” of a quite different sort was common: pornographic novels and magazines that purported to speak of physical culture, of nudism and the emancipation of women but in reality were cheap commercial ventures calculated only to stir up the sexual passions of the “liberated” readers.

Gone was the censorship of the clergy, as were the priests, monks and nuns themselves. The churches were no longer anything but blackened shells, where fire had finished whatever bombs and dynamite had left of their walls. Not a church was left standing intact in Barcelona except the old Cathedral which, singularly enough, had been preserved by all factions as a work of art.

Nothing so sharply characterized the change in regime that had taken place as the nature of the newspapers in circulation. All the old sheets that one used to read, El Debat, A.B.C., etc., were nowhere to be seen and their place was taken by the papers of the workers’ groups, formerly poorly printed sheets issued weekly in small numbers, but now grown to powerful dailies. Now it was “Soli”, Solidaridad Obrera, organ of the C.N.T. leading the way with a circulation of about 225,000, La Batalla, paper of the P.O.U.M., El Treball and Las Noticias, P.S.U.C. papers in Catalan and Spanish, that were most read. Many of the radio stations in operation in May – later they were all taken over by the government © were controlled by the same workers’ organizations. The programs that blared out most frequently consisted of news from the front, international news and propaganda or proclamations.

The workers factions were by no means in harmony among themselves, the chief quarrel being between those who wished to retain the present republic while fighting Franco, and those who wanted to pursue the revolution further along the lines of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. These latter groups (The Anarchists, the Syndicalists and the P.O.U.M.) had been mainly responsible for the collectivization of industry which is one of the most fundamental changes that have been effected in Catalonia. Restaurants, means of transportation, as well as all key industries have been thus collectivized.

During the fighting of the July Days of 1936, many owners of industry, shopkeepers and restaurateurs, tired of the perpetual tumult and fearful of their lives should a social revolution be successful, fled the country. To take over the abandoned enterprises and operate them was at once a natural step and a necessity for the continued economic existence of Catalonia. The expropriation was carried out principally by the C.N.T. which in the course of the past year has become the leading industrial corporation as well as the most powerful proletarian group. The change of direction was not effectuated without considerable confusion during the early period of workers’ control.

Oh my goodness! Doesn’t that sound like a place just east of hell on earth. My father’s superiors at the RBofC did urge him to leave Barcelona and he told them that he felt he must stay there to protect the lives and livelihood of his Spanish employees. Yes, this does sound like something my father would do and give as his reason for doing it. A bit sanctimonious, well meaning and taking himself more seriously than he should have, probably.

All during his lifetime he never told me anything about his experiences in Barcelona, not one thing! I inherited some papers from him that said little of fact or feelings.

After sending his wife and children back to Canada in July 1936, he came to get us in the fall of 1937 and brought us back to live in Vernet-l-bains in the French Pyrenees about 80 klicks west of Perpignan, a wonderful Provencal city of the “Cote Emeraude”.

HL & me '37

That’s my mother’s handwriting at the bottom of the photo.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/08/28 at 08:15

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  1. […] A word picture of Barcelona in 1937 (robertg69.wordpress.com) […]


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