Atop Corbera D’Ebre: Memorialising the Spanish Civil War

Atop the Catalan town of Corbera D’Ebre in the area known as the Alta Terra (high country) are the ruins of a town called Poble Vell (‘old village’ in Catalan). The views from many parts of the ruins, as in many parts of this area altogether, are spectacular. One can see for kilometres in every direction; and from here spread the mountains of the Serras de Pàndols and Cavalls. In this spot on an afternoon in early July, it is hot, really hot, but clear. The landscape is dotted with hilltop villages, giant wind turbines sitting on rugged mountains and stands of trees seemingly battling a terrain that really doesn’t want them there.

The hills are also cut through with vines. Somewhere in the distance is the Ebro river, the longest river in Spain and the second longest in the Mediterranean basin after the Nile. It is also the river that gives the Iberian Peninsula its name. You would be hard pressed to find someone in Australia who has heard of this river, but it sits at the top of the dais of my imagination. I have waited sixty-six years to see it and the area that surrounds it. Here took place the final and longest battle of the Spanish Civil War. That battle, which lasted 115 days and produced 140,000 casualties (of whom my father was one, though luckily for me he survived) was an unmitigated disaster. Anthony Beevor describes it as stupid. Indeed, ‘beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda’.

Poble Vell was destroyed by fascist bombardments from the air and ground. It had the misfortune of being almost the perfect place to view and direct the battle that was to determine the end of the Spanish Republic and presage the Second World War. Like the town of Belchite further south, near Zaragoza, it was left in ruins by Franco, the fascist dictator, as a reminder to all those who considered standing against him that he would have no compunction about grinding them to dust. That was Franco’s aim in his direction of the war: not only to win, but to destroy all opposition. Franco deliberately prolonged the war so that he could kill as many of his opponents as possible. He used Republican prisoners as slave labour to rebuild the country, and gave thousands to the Nazis to use as well. He executed thousands and drove hundreds of thousands into exile. And rather than rebuild Poble Vell where it had stood for hundreds of years, he left it in ruins as a reminder to the Catalans that their resistance was futile. So it stood for forty years, until his death in 1975, and then a few more years, when it became a memorial to the resistance, not to the fascists.

All the way through this part of Catalunya, on riverbanks, along stony paths that wind around the hills, in the towns that have stood for so long, there are reminders: plaques, statues, small museums memorialise the Civil War and the International Brigaders that were such a crucial part of it. In other parts of Spain it is difficult to find any mention or mementos of the war, but in Catalunya they are everywhere. Since the death of Franco, Catalunya has rebuilt its language, its culture and its memory of the war. I could follow my father’s journey to Pradell de la Teixeta, where he would have spent a month training (in its loosest sense) for battle and where he sat at the public fountain where the local women did their washing and flirted with the foreign soldiers. I walked the trail where he set up his machine gun and kept the sniper across the river at bay, and where the bullet scraped his skull and sent him first to the cave hospital Santa Llùcia at La Bisbal de Falset and then onwards to Mataro further north. There is a memorial at the cave, with photographs of the set-up and some of the British soldiers who died there. There is also a book for visitors to sign. Bland statements that went something like Never again from Giorgio from Bolognia infuriated me so much that I wrote in my indecipherable script Death to all Fascists and No Pasaran. This was not a simple place of cultural and historical memory that had no political meaning; this was an anti-fascist, anti-Franco memorial.

Catalunya is more politically radical than some other parts of Spain, a tradition that goes back further than the republic of the 1930s. This is not the place to recount the longer story, but because it was the hub of the Spanish textiles industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Barcelona became the centre for the radicalisation of the industrial working class. The anarcho-syndicalists, in particular, produced a mass movement that became important to the Republic, and its failures. The anarchists were not alone though. The POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista in Spanish, orPartit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista in Catalan), an alliance of non-Stalinist Marxists, socialist parties and the much smaller, Moscow-aligned Communist Party of Spain, were also at the barricades, uniting and then dividing their various followings. With the fall of the Republic in 1939 and the complete victory of Franco, as noted, there was a concerted effort to intimidate and then liquidate all opposition. But by the 1990s, collective action was once again being called out, resurrecting the memories of survivors, their children and grandchildren and all those who had become intrigued by those fragments of metal found in the ground or that unexplained photo hidden in a book, or were dissatisfied with the explanations that emanated from the Spanish Catholic Church. It has also meant that generations of Spaniards and Catalans found that they were not related to those who had brought them up, and that they had been taken from families of the beaten as babies and sold to families of the victors.

Madrid has a much more equivocal memory to contend with, and is having a much harder time of it. It would be impossible for a capital city of three million people not to have memorials to such a huge, internationally important event as the Spanish Civil War, but the political situation has meant there is still debate and negotiation around any such memorialising. A few examples may illustrate what I mean by ‘equivocal’.

The first is that of the ‘Fallen of the Mountain Barracks’. On top of a hill in central Madrid stands an ancient Egyptian temple: El Templo de Debod. It is not a well-made reconstruction; it is the real deal. In 1968, as the Aswan Dam in Egypt was being built, the ancient buildings that dotted the area were broken down into pieces and rebuilt in dryer parts of the country. However, as a present from one nationalist dictator (Nasser) to another (Franco), the Debod was rebuilt on the site of the former army barracks in Madrid, which had been destroyed during the Civil War. Franco had at first determined to build some huge monument to his greatness on this site, but for various reasons, that wasn’t to be, and instead the temple sits where the barracks once did. At the bottom of the hill, however, is a monument called Caidos Del Cuartel de la Montaña, erected by the fascists to commemorate the first battle of the Civil War and the Nationalist (but not the Republican) dead. Each year, fascist supporters commemorate the anniversary of the fascist uprising at this spot. In a democracy it is hard to understand how it is possible to revere the person who overthrew another democracy, but they somehow succeed.

Example two of the difficulties of memorialising the Civil War in Madrid is the plaque at the site of the Hotel Florida. This was the place to be during the Civil War. Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn and many others there to watch and write about and photograph the war stayed at the Hotel Florida. It is no longer a hotel, but the Madrid City Council has mounted a plaque on the wall. It reads: ‘Hotel Florida (1924–1964). A place where writers, artists and correspondents from around the world would meet’: an incredible understatement of the people and the context! Nowhere does it say that they were only there in order to record and experience the war from the Republican side; without that, it would have been just another luxury hotel and of very little interest. This plaque was only approved by the city council on the understanding that no explicit mention would be made of the Civil War or the Republic.

A third example of the difficulties in memorialisation is the monument to the deportations to Mauthausen concentration camp in 1940–41. In addition to the thousands of Republican slave labourers given to the Nazi war machine and the many other Republicans rounded up in France during the occupation, whom Franco refused to recognise as Spaniards, 450 people were deported from the Plaza Rollo in central Madrid to Mauthausen. In total, 7500 Republicans were deported to Mauthausen, and 5000 of them died. One who survived was Francisco Boix, a photographer, who was used by the Nazis to photograph their atrocities in the camp. Boix managed to hide thousands of photographic negatives until the camp was liberated, some of which were used as evidence in the trials at Nuremberg. The monument at the Plaza Rollo has four rather abstract metal sculptures with the names of the deported inscribed on the plinths. However, on the city council plaque outlining what happened there, there is no mention of the fact that the deportees were not Jews or Romany or others, but Republicans. It feels like the memorial you have when you really don’t want to have a memorial. Bland comments like ‘never again’ are next to meaningless in a present-day context where historical accuracy is clearly anxiety-producing.

It is not as if there is no mention of the Civil War or the Republican losers, or the fascist winners, in contemporary Madrid. If you want to see Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art you must walk through galleries of paintings, photographs and posters of the period. The photographs include many by Margaret Michaelis, an Austrian who spent much of the postwar period in Australia. They are of orphan children in school, street scenes of Barcelona during the war and the aftermath of battles and bombings. Michaelis worked for the propaganda division of the CNT (the anarchists), and her photos of Spain were effectively forgotten until they were unearthed in Amsterdam by Spanish researcher Almudena Rubio. At the Reina Sofia, there is also the art of Miro, Dali, Man Ray and others. The art and life of the Republican period was vivid and remarkable. It was as if Spain was waking up from a deep slumber—which later became the living nightmare depicted by Picasso. Passing through the security screening and metal detectors of the Reina Sofia, I wondered if the security was in part to make sure that neo-fascists did not bring in weapons to destroy evidence of what the Republic had attempted to do for the Spanish people.

The Spanish Civil War has resonances well beyond Spain’s borders. Madrid was the first European city to be bombed from the air, and as the historian Helen Graham notes, the conflict bore the ‘hallmarks’ of other fascist and dictatorial regimes throughout Europe. That Franco survived as a dictator all the way through to his death in 1975 was because of wider European forces and the Cold War. He was a useful anti-communist, and so his anti-democratic regime was allowed to continue unabated until that time.

What the memorials and the resistance to them illustrate is that neither historical memory nor historical amnesia is ever complete. Shadows of events always exist, and what is a show of power, as in the case of Poble Vell, in one period may in another be a vivid reminder of resistance. Spain continues to pull itself in different directions while trying to come to terms with the Civil War and its remembrance, and no country is immune to these complex social, political and psychological forces of remembering and forgetting. History may be written by the victors, but given time, the victors age and die, and new possibilities emerge. As Graham writes, ‘for all its civil, cultural significance, commemoration in Spain, as elsewhere … is always in some way about present-day politics too’.

Why memorials are constructed, when, and who the actors pushing memorialisation are, are also interesting questions. Graham addresses them directly. She argues that, as with the case of Holocaust remembrance, the end of biological memory is key; there is a ‘tremendous sense of sadness, loss and danger that [it] engenders’. Memorialisation becomes a necessary action for those who remain. In cases like the Spanish Civil War, after decades of repression, for Graham historical memorialisation is an ‘act of democratic and constitutional citizenship’. However, because of the complicity of many Spaniards in the repression, the opening up of ‘old wounds’ is feared, and thus the opposition to much of the memorialisation is also a part of the story. Just as so many people can now point to their fathers/mothers/grandparents who took part in the great democratic struggle and take pride in them, others may be reluctant to experience the shame of discovering their ancestors’ complicity in a murderous regime. This is an integral but silent part of memorialisation. I can take pride in my father’s anti-fascist struggles, but am I open to the shame that knowledge of some of his less heroic activities might engender?

Note: Miquel Gonzalez’s book Memoria Perdida is available through his website at

About the author

Grazyna Zajdow

Grazyna Zajdow is a retired Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University where she taught for many years. Her research interests have been the experience and social effects of drugs and alcohol and feminist sociology. She was a co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series).

More articles by Grazyna Zajdow

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