Barcelona's Civil War History App Now Available!

The content that I made for GPS-My-City is a 18-stop GPS tour map with a history of each location in text and voice recording. It’s almost like having me give you a guided tour of the sites historically relevant to the Spanish Civil War.

In order to purchase it, first download the GPS-My-City App from the iTunes AppStore. Then search for the Barcelona Civil War tour from the in-app catalog.

A Civil Rights History Tour of New York City will be also up in the next three months!

Teachers Union/Student Protests and Vaga

Yesterday a student and teachers union led manifestacio at the University of Barcelona to protest the neoliberal cuts planned by the current Popular Party government ended with street battles and arson. Estimates of the crowd size from the organizers were between one hundred thousand and one hundred and twenty five thousand, however I’ve read now at several places that it was more likely around forty thousand. Several groups of radicals at the protest were not solely directed against the government cuts but against the Populist Party government itself as it emerged from the same coalition which once brought about the Francoist dictatorship and represents to many a step back for freedom in the country.

Students Occupying the University

While this was going on, I was in my Spanish language school getting texts of about it from Josselyn, who was there. I was admittedly nonchalant about it as manifestacios happen here with such regularity that it seems a normal event. Placa Catalunya is filled almost every weekend with protestors from the CGT, the CCOO, Los Indignatos or some other post-leftist group. As I was bored with the routine of the protests here, I decided to go home rather than join Josselyn and her friends as I wanted to finish creating the content for a Radical History Tour of New York that I’m working on for after having written a similarly inspired one for Barcelona that focuses on the Civil War epoch. As I was looking up addresses and GPS coordinates, Josselyn came in to our apartment out of breath and shared with me what was happening.

Apparently at one point during the manifestacio, groups of students broke into the school in order to occupy the dean’s office – as of now 300 students are sleeping inside the office of the rectorate while groups of anarchists started setting fire to the large plastic trash bins outside of the school, destroying a car next to one of them in the process. After doing this they called over a bull horn for people to go to Placa Espanya in order to disrupt the Mobile World Congress and destroy the tents and equipment set up there.

Standoff before the arsons

Up to now the buses and metros were already shut down to prevent quick movement of masses of people from other areas going to Placa Universitat or Placa Espanya, but with the beginning of arson the phone services were halted as well to stop communication between affinity groups from sharing information as to where police round up and defense points were located. As the police were now assaulting people at random with their batons and arresting anyone who couldn’t escape their clutches, Josselyn left with her friend Lawrence by bike. She arrived home, described what I just did above and, as we are a mere five blocks from where the group was headed, we then decided to see what would happen.

When we arrived at Placa Espana the street was already shut down and there were already over thirty armored personal carriers and around a hundred and fifty police in riot gear. They had just exited their cars and setting up a perimeter around the event. From our vantage point on the other side of where the protestors were coming from we couldn’t see what was happening very well, so we crossed the street and climbed onto the monument in the center of Placa Espana. Now some ten feet above ground, we saw that the number that had once been at Placa Universitat was now a fraction of what it was – there were now no more than eight hundred protestors. I scanned the crowd and saw the typical composition of Barcelona’s “radicals”. There was someone swinging around a flag with an anarchy insignia, someone with an Anonymous mask, large number of semi-dreadlocked youth (I say semi-dreadlocked as unlike anywhere I’ve seen before, large numbers of Catalan youths have dreadlocks solely on the back of their head) and many people that seemed to want to confront the police but knew that they stood no match for them in their riot gear.

Police capturing video for their files
I spotted a police camera crew filming the event in case there should need to be arrests. While this is now typical fare in most western countries, given the P.P.’s fascist roots and that Barcelona was once the testing ground for the Nazi Gestapo for new forms of surveillance and secret policing tactics it is especially chilling.

After a while it was clear that there was not going to be any confrontation between the police and protestors outside of pithy perorations so we decided to walk around the protestors in order to get to the University of Barcelona. By this time the people that had once filled the square were gone, leaving behind only slogans in graffiti on various surfaces, the burnt remains of the trash and a few broken windows.

Vandalizing "La Bolsa"

The other part of the Vaga action, shutting down La Bolsa bank was more successful. In addition to vandalizing the ATM screen with spray paint and ripping out the presspad, the group managed to break some of the windows with rocks. As we walked, I noticed a young man with a short red Mohawk bleeding from the arm while talking to police – presumably as he’d been arrested there instead of with the three-hundred others at the University of Barcelona.

The student action of entering the school and occupying it was also successful and as of now there are 300 students sleeping inside the office of the rectorate of the University of Barcelona. However what exactly this and the temporary shut down of the Bolsa bank has accomplished on a larger scale, is uncertain.

Photos not from Placa Espana are from Miquel Monfort and if you want to see more there is a great photoblog from MSNBC here.

For more info on the struggles over University, in Catalan, go to this blog or this one.

Two Barcelona Observations & A Note on Spanish Translations

Random Observation: The dogs on the street here are incredibly well behaved and most of them aren’t on leashes. They typically follow a few feet behind their masters or walk beside them. I’ve seen hundreds of dogs and not once have I seen two them act aggressive towards one another, even if one is an excited puppy.

Random Knowledge: During the regime of Franco, a law forced restaurants to offer a “Menu del Dia” so that every working man, regardless of his wages, would be able to enjoy a filling yet affordable lunch out. The law’s gone but the tradition continues and is the reason why €6.50 meals are still offered throughout Barcelona and the rest of Spain. Fascism – It takes away your right to organize and fight for higher wages, but provides you with cheap calories!

Translations: As part of my interest in  15m and the post-left political turn generally, today I started reading and translating Pensar el 15M y otros textos. There’s not yet been any high-profile news related to this book in Spain in the same way that the Tarnac 9 brought attention to The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, but I’m hoping that with the translation of this into english it will provide the english-only speaking world with a better understanding of some of the political and social issues happening here in Spain and indeed the rest of Europe. At Harper’s Magazine, Nathan Schneider has a good article about OWS (also available here), the American manifestation of the Spanish manifestacios. If you are interested in reading some chapters before I shop them to publishers, email me.

La Maleta Mexicana

Since moving to Barcelona several events of regional import have occurred. A ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, viewed as a cruel and solely Castillian pastime, has been put into effect. The Popular Party, which began from the ashes of Franquismo and still contains elements of it, has ejected the PSOE from national power. Wide scale revelations of Catholic social agencies falsely pronouncing newborn children dead to their mothers so that their children could be given to deserving Francoists has happened. Additionally, the Civil War pictures of Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro have returned to Spain. While this last event is of the least world-historical significance, there is good cause to recognize the pictures themselves for their artistic value but to see in it also a return of something precious once lost to Spain’s cultural history. If it weren’t for the fact that the photos reproducible, the return of the photos to Catalonia for the first time would be similar to the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece.

The Civil War is a taboo topic in Spanish society. According to one of my Spanish instructors, the extent of its teaching in schools is that “it happened” and the only to the extent that Franco took power. The sundry reasons for the war, the scope of the tragedy during the war and that afterwards political purges against those sympathetic to the Second Republic killed tens of thousands more are disavowed. Yet what cannot be silenced is the profound influence that such occurrences had on the current makeup of Spanish society. When all that is spoken of is that a political liberalization followed Franco’s death it ignores the fact that many of the potential political activists, intellectuals and other people that could have been significant in institutional statecraft or non-governmental structures were exterminated.

Yet despite the potentially painful and conflict inducing nature of this exhibit, this hasn’t stopped many people from visiting the museum and coming to see them. I have no figures to say just how many people have gone, but I can relate that it wasn’t until the second time that I went to the museum that I was able to see the pictures as the first time the exhibition was filled to capacity and had a long line of people going outside of the MNAC.

The exhibition was organized from the start of the Civil War. The narrative thrust of the pictures, from the speeches of agitators and crowd shots of peasants and factory workers, the first preparations of defense from an assault by those that had once been their neighbors, the ruins following aerial raids, and ground combat was gave an idea of what was going on, however with the above historical understanding there is many things implicitly missing. Unseen are the roving squads of Nationalists going through conquered cities at night in search of those that had been enemies or sympathizers by day. Visible are the poor conditions that the Republican Army and International brigades fought under and their stoic faces when preparing for an air raid by Nazi planes. At the end of the exhibition we learn through that the photographers felt they must flee to Paris and then the United States in order to survive the continued victories of fascism.

The exhibit is designed to show a dialogue between these pictures that were known of and printed in international magazines documenting the war along with the 4,500 other negatives that hadn’t been published. It exudes a certain sadness to it in that not only is the effect of though we see widely publicized pictured hinting at what a new conflict would look like amidst the advanced industrial powers of Europe, people were still unwilling to mobilize in order to prevent it’s occurrence. Along with the pictures themselves were two videos, one of which was an American newsreel, with subtitles in Spanish and the other a film reel shot by Capa, as well as original magazines from the period which used the pictures of the three authors. One of these magazines includes an article by Winston Churchill, which tellingly states that unless the United States is willing to openly declare that it won’t allow any one power to control the European continent that there will be war. Such articles are an interesting accent to the exhibition as they openly hint at the historical context outside the immediate pictures. It displays not only the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, but the idealistic isolationism of the latter and the devastating effects of it’s unwillingness to replicate the balance of power diplomatic policy used by Britain for hundreds of years.

In this regards, despite the fact that very little attention is given to the details of the Spanish Civil War, Henry Kissinger’s writing about this in Diplomacy is highly insightful in pointing out the context wherein virtually every Western power saw a Fascist Spain as less of a danger to their interests than they did a marginally Leftist Spain presumably tied to the Soviet Union. That such a position was radically misinformed, as the Spanish Republicans and Libertarian Communists were not puppets tied to Stalin and certain sections of the myriad groups supporting the left only later came under Soviet influence after the total isolation by the world community left it little choice, only became clear in hindsight for those involved.

While all of this is only visible through a dialectical reading of the pictures, the pictures themselves are significant not only in their documentary nature but in their composition as well. The photos of Branguli, which I wrote about earlier, are another set of images quite literally helps provide a fuller picture to the economic and political developments occurring in Barcelona at this time.

If you cannot get the chance to see them in person – I would highly recommend buying the book showing all of these once thought to be lost pictures.

I’ve not gone into too much detail on the history of the photographers as there is an excellent documentary on Capa and La Maleta Mexicana that once released is eminently worth viewing.

Branguli at C.C.C.B

I had never heard of the name Josep Branguli before moving to Barcelona and going to his exhibit at C.C.C.B. This is understandable for as a documentary photographer capturing the urban metamorphosis and social transformations at the beginning of the 20th century he is a single person amongst many. His pictures of small factories employing a handful of people, and the large ones replacing them are done as artfully as the pictures of workers in social setting. Yet these are not unique. What distinguishes Branguli from others is his collection of Spanish Civil War photography.

Branguli was born in 1879 and worked as a photographer in Barcelona from 1909 until his death in 1945. Unlike Capa, Chim and Taro, the photographers most associated with documenting the conflict, Branguli did not have to flee before Franquist troops. This meant that he was not moving around from front to front and was able to document most of the important events of Barcelona. As a well-known resident documenting the conflict but not a member of any of the groups later banned by Franco, Branguli was able to remain in Barcelona and take photos after the Second Republic finally collapsed. In these years Branguli focus shifted from the social and material changes imposed by capitalist logic to the topography of a repressive police state.

One of the events that Branguli captured on cellulose included images from the Tragic Week of 1909. It was during this week that Republicans, Socialists and Anarchists fought against clergy and the army following unrest against pay, working conditions and anti-militarism. It was during this period that many overstated stories that had the intention of delegitimizing the secular parties purportedly initiating the fighting were circulated in the press. One of the news stories circulated to discredit the Republic was that their anarchist allies were digging up the corpses of nuns and priests throughout the region and dancing with them. Branguli’s picture shows that bodies were indeed de-interred, yet subsequent historiography show how this only happened in a few places and was not at all a systematic desecration as was spoken of in Catholic.

This particular picture is interesting not just as it gave validity to the King and Catholic Church’s claims of moral authority but in a way also undermines it. The influence of the Catholic Church in Spain was and still is profound. The peasants at that time, if literate at all, were so only in the teaching of the Bible and the catechism unless they’d been able to be educated in one of Fransisco Ferrer’s handful of modern schools. One of the Catholic articles of faith at the time was that those that who had lived a holy life would decay slower, as evident by the use of holy relics, and thus the picture of the body presents a paradox. To the viewer, the holy body is indeed removed from it’s grave and the body is also not as holy as claimed by the authorities on holiness. What is indeed presented is the same sort of problem as the stinking body of Zosima, something that I doubt would have been lost by Branguli.

Buenaventura Durruti's Funeral Procession

Another important event that Branguli was able to visually preserve for posterity was the funeral procession of Buenavetta Durruti, an Italian anarchist activist and writer inspired like many others to leave their homelands and come to Spain in order to assist the Second Republic from a fascist military coup. He was, however, shot and killed after only a week in Spain. Despite his marginal role in the war, the numbers of people clearly show that he was someone that gave voice to many of those fighting for their lives.

Also captured by Branguli was the arrival of Heinrich Himmler in October in 1940. His presence is not only evidence of the collusion between Fascist Spain and Nazi Germany, but hints at the deeper collaboration between these two nations. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Spain did in 1492 part of what Germany was then attempting to accomplish. Thus, with the lessons of the Peninsular War surely at the back of their minds, the Gestapo and Spanish secret police sought to root out the Catalan nationalists and other classes that might rupture their organicist ideals.

While Branguli’s work was published in several Spanish revistas I’ve yet to find evidence that he was published outside of it. After the war in Spain, it was a taboo issue inside the country and the rest of the world now shifted their attention to the conflict building up into a fever pitch around Germany. Thus that he is still somewhat of a hometown secret becomes more understandable, though perhaps with a little bit of luck some sixty plus years after his death he’ll be getting the recognition that he deserves.

Viva Barcelona!

It’s been a little over a month since moving to Barcelona. While getting accustomed to the time change and daily rhythm which is so vastly different from the of New York hasn’t been difficult per se, but it has exacted from me my ability to write. The amount of bureaucracy here is indeed mind-blowing and probably a reason why the black market is so prevalent throughout the country. However, now that I consider myself mostly adjusted, I wanted to take the time to write in some detail about some of my thoughts since arriving.

First I must admit that since arriving I have found myself consistently gratified for having taken the time to read Robert Hughes book Barcelona, a comprehensive account of the history of my new home cities development from Roman colony to empire to unwilling appendage of Castillian influence to war zone to home of the 1992 summer Olympics. Hughes also introduces the eminent personages that helped construct the city and bring it renown, catalogs many of the distinctly Catalan cultural traditions, traces it’s political and economic developments as well as give detailed examination of the city’s famous architecture. Poets, revolutionaries of the Right and Left, Kings, colonialists all have their place, but it is the artisans which designed the city that he devotes most of his attention. This is unsurprising given Hughes background as an art critic, but his exegesis of wood, marble stone and cement is no mere formalism but informed by the historical contexts and conflicts of the time.

Hughes gives the history behind the Teatro de Liceu, a work of epic beauty constructed during the beginning of the Golden Age of the Catalan bourgeoise which could not cope with the industrialism which helped bring it into being. The strange placement of Monjuic, a castle at the edge rather than the center of the city, is explained, as well as the large statue of Christopher Colombus pointing to the New World close to Barcelona’s docks. The reasoning that so many of the cities street names are of foreign origin are brought to light, as are many other aspects of the city that I have since encountered.

While the two thousand years of history and development that are gone over in this 567 page book have an impressive amount of detail, it is the final chapters on Gaudi which are by far the most in depth. Given Gaudi’s impact on notions of Barcelonans Catalan identity and subsequent use in advertising matrerial this is unsurprising. However, this section is no more paean to genius, the capacity of architects to bring an aesthetic pleasure to the banal and incorporate local craft traditions into work in a time of increasing standardization and deskilling. Additionally, the book ends with a masterful deconstruction of La Sagrada Familia, the building probably associated with Barcelona in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is with Paris.

And speaking of Paris, I must admit that after having read this I have a fervent desire to return to Paris after having read Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. While I visited many of the literary sites made famous by the long history of Parisian intellectuals and writers, the Lost Generation and Henry Miller, this text, I’m sure as Hughes does, presents a type of history shows just how embedded the past is into the present.

Whilst on the subject of the past embedded in the present, and one of the reasons why I wanted to write this blog, was that one of the things which have taken me by surprise since arriving is the living memory apparent within the public places of Barcelona. While visiting the library closest to my house I noticed several Republican political posters from the Spanish Civil War. Whilst walking around the Montjuic park I came across a statue of Fernando Ferrer – a secular educator that was sentanced to death for a falsely attributed role in an assassination plot. In a bookstore by the Liceu metro line, off Passeig de Gracia, I entered a bookstore which contained a large display of books related to the Spanish Civil War at the front of the store, the area which is considered most valuable to attracting customers. There are posters and graffiti, heavily concentrated in the Gracia area, for the CNT, CGT and COO and whilst walking in the Old City there was a large rally composed of these groups protesting cut in social spending.

I see this and in light of the fact that all of these public acknowledgments of previous and still existing social conflict stems from the death of Franco and the relaxation of strictures preventing remberence I find stunning. The various conceptual and historical frameworks offered by G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Reinhart Koselleck, Benedict Andersen sets my mind running in various directions, especially when considering the manner in which such history is deployed amidst the current Spanish economic crisis. This is a topic that I’m sure I will meditate on more as time goes on and I find myself exposed to more experiences – however one such topic that I think worthy of attention is how there are certain historical periods which some regions/countries get stuck in.

For Spain it is clearly the Spanish Civil War which is historical moment that is constantly returned to it as a source of inspiration, reflection and criticism. During the time immediately preceding, during and following the war there was a flourishing of literature which was describing the events. The two books most widely acclaimed about the events, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, are truly great but should also be paired with a Spanish work of similar greatness, Lorca’s Three Tragedies. Additionally, it wasn’t just the literary arts that was affected. Perhaps the most famous work related to this was Picasso’s Guernica. While the ideological foment embedded in this period wasn’t atypical and had several echoes in other national literatures and arts – however that this continues to be a guiding source of inspiration is.

Recent films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Last Circus, There Be Dragons also center on or have these events play a major role in plot and character development. Even Javier Bardem’s recent film Biutiful, set in modern day Barcelona, focuses on a character haunted by his father who died while fleeing Franco’s death squads. Such a history is not surprisingly disavowed in Woody Allen’s omphaloskeptical film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

This is not so unsurprising as such events allow for dramatic tension that rarely emerges. Inter-natinonal war is one thing, but prolonged civil war with entrenched positions based upon class/ideological differences is. My own interest in the dynamic provided by nationalistic and ideological tension contained within the context stems from a period of convalescence where I devoured The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, The Spanish Civil War: Revised Edition, The Spanish Civil War, Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women in a period of a few weeks. I bring this as just as many of the conflicts within the Civil War are still relevant to contemporary issues and not just to Autonomous communities in Spain.

To cite a specific example, last Thursday I unwittingly walked into my first major Spanish demonstration protesting the neo-liberal policies mandated by Germany to support the EU (pictures). Spain still has credibility where Greece and now Italy do not, but this doesn’t mean that there still isn’t rampant unemployment, social unrest and problems that are lying underneath the semi-peaceful veneer. This is, however, unlikely to change. As the moral hazard created by Greece and now Italy spreads it is likely to create increased tension amidst those and other member nation states as incentives to fail become available. While the battles for the future control over resource management and government policy will now be directed by politicians rather than princes or fuhrers, thus taking the heroic element out of politics with bureaucracy, what economists should consider is not the increasing perfectibility of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models – but how it is that historical traditions inform economic responses.

That said, I’m going out to see more of the city.