When Jason Webster moved into an old farmhouse north of Valencia, he found by chance an unmarked mass grave from the Spanish Civil War on his doorstep. Spurred to investigate the history of the bloody conflict many of his Spanish friends still seemed to treat as taboo, he began to uncover a darker side to the country he loved. Witness to a brutal fist-fight sponsored by remnants of Franco’s Falangists, arrested by the police, sheltered by a beautiful transvestite, and finally robbed of his identity, Webster encountered a hidden legacy of cruelty and violence. Yet the more Webster unveils of the passions that set one countryman against another, the more his is led to wonder: could the dark, primitive currents that ripped the country apart in the 1930s still be stiring under the sophisticated, worldly surface of today’s Spain?
The Spanish Civil War was a major conflict that devastated Spain from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939. It began after an attempted coup d’etat against the government of the Second Spanish Republic, then under the leadership of president Manuel Azana, by a group of Spanish Army generals, supported by the conservative Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (C.E.D.A), Carlist groups and the fascistic Falange Española de las J.O.N.S. The war ended with the victory of the rebel forces, the overthrow of the Republican government, and the founding of a dictatorship led by General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain until his death in November 1975. The book introduce us to the ascent of General Franco to power. As the nationalist army advances to capture the Republican stronghold in Spain, the Spanish cities of of Granada, Alicante, Madrid, Valencia, Saragossa, Guernica (which is badly hit by air bombardment), and Bilbao, Perpignan (in France) and Badajoz (at Portugese border) all have their own stirring accounts of how the city fell into the hands of the rebel, with great loss of lives.
The coup d’etat was planned from the city of Melila and Ceuta, with the help of Moroccan army of Spanish legions of Ceuta and Melilla led by General Franco, and German’s transporting the army with their war planes across the strait of Gibraltra. It was a troubling time, with many political powers involved in the war. The Republicans (republicanos) were supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico, while the followers of the rebellion, nationalists (nacionales), received the support of Italy and Germany, as well as neighbouring Portugal. The involvment of anarchist groups such as Worker unions CNT and POUM – the Marxist Unification Worker’s Party, of which George Orwell (author of The Animal farm) was a voluntary service man. It was a time when family members and trusted neighbours and friends pitted against each other. Apart from the combatants, many civilians were killed for their political or religious views by both sides.
The war increased international tensions in Europe in the lead-up to World War II, and was largely seen as a proxy war between the Communist Soviet Union and the Fascists of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In particular, new tank warfare tactics and the terror bombing of cities from the air (in Guernica) were features of the Spanish war which played a significant part in the later general European war.
The writer meanwhile travels through Spain, witnessing the blood thirsty culture of bull fighting, underground boxing match and hike-up emotion of watching a soccer match re-run; his belongings stolen, staying with drag queen friend Kiki, and seeing Spain with a new pair of piercing and critical eyes.
It was a war that no one wanted to recall. When dictator General Franco died, Spanish democracy was built on an agreement not to rake over the past, almost to pretend that nothing had happened – the so-called pacto de olvido, the ‘pact of fogetting’. The history books of Spain and Morocco hailed General Franco as a hero, liberator and a force against the communists. The victory had come with a cost, of not fighting a foreign enemy but against Spainish own countrymen.
I have always wanted to read about Spain’s darker past. While Oxford short introduction to Spanish Civil War put me to sleep, this book provided me with personal travelling anecdotes and a very good introduction to the war. I now understand the alliances and history between Spain and Morocco, and cities of Ceuta and Melilla, of whom I passed twice and bought a duty-free wool overcoat in 2003. So much tragic past this country, now is a question of whether enforcing pact of forgetting for continous unity or recovering historical memory before it is too late, before the last few survivors go to their graves with memories of the war.
About the Author
Jason Webster was born in San Francisco in 1970 and grew up in England and Germany. After studying Arabic at Oxford and living for several years in Italy and Egypt, he went to Spain to learn to play the flamenco guitar. He currently lives in Valencia with his Spanish wife. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Duende and Andalus. www.jasonwebster.net
What I like most about the book: encapsulates what is needed for a layman wanting to know about the Spanish Civil War, injected with anecdotes of personal travel experience in relation to the war.
What I like least about the book: It is after all a war history book, not a travel writing book, don’t expect it to be highly entertaining. Alternate chapters do read like a history text, as I get bogged down by names, facts and historical events. I have a hard time finishing this book, even if it is only 288 pages. It is a book that needs to be studied in quiet reflective moments, rather than reading it on a train or during commuting hours.