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Battles on La Rambla

Two great older books illuminate the Spanish Civil War and the road to polarization

Republicans of leftist parties fight in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil war. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Battles on La Rambla
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Polarize might be 2019’s Word of the Year and publishing meme. Sitting to the right of my MacBook are recent books from two leading academic presses: Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton) and Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford). What do we need to know? That polarization occurs when one side demands rapid social change and the other refuses to give in? When mass media ignore Biblical objectivity and celebrate subjectivity, that turns opponents into enemies?

Maybe, since few things are new under the sun, history holds some lessons for us. In the 19th century’s worst civil war in the Western world, 600,000 Americans died out of a population of 30 million. In the 20th century’s worst in the Western world, 500,000 Spaniards died out of a population of 25 million: oddly, the same percentage as in the United States. When my family and I visited the battlefield in Shiloh, Tenn., which witnessed the most deaths in a two-day Union-Confederate battle, we went to church near where the fighting began in 1862 and relished hand fans with the slogan, “Moonshine kills.” We need to know that polarization also kills.

Republicans of leftist parties demonstrate in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil war.

Republicans of leftist parties demonstrate in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil war. STF/AFP via Getty Images

Spain’s downward spiral escalated in 1931 when it kicked out King Alfonso XIII. During the next five years Spain became politically polarized, with a far-right and then a far-left government taking turns. On July 19, 1936, 5,000 soldiers marched to Plaça de Catalunya, “Catalonia Square,” the center of Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona, as part of a military coup. But an odd coalition of Marxists and anarchists overwhelmed the rebels and created the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, which ruled Barcelona for the next 30 months and ordered the killing of conservative leaders.

The Spanish left was also successful in Madrid and other large cities, but the Spanish right had strength in the countryside, and a civil war began. It was especially vicious in Catalonia, the area of northeast Spain that periodically tries to declare its independence from the rest of the country: This fall it once again was home to riots. But the war also gave birth to one of my favorite works of journalism, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and my very favorite novel, José Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God.

George Orwell

George Orwell AP

ORWELL WROTE IN THE 1940s his two famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984, but they both grew out of his experience in Barcelona in 1937. He had come to Spain as a socialist idealist and enlisted in a military force under the control of POUM, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). Another major power on the left was the Spanish Communist Party, which pledged allegiance to Moscow. After four months on the front lines Orwell journeyed in May to Barcelona’s Hotel Continental for one or two weeks of R&R with his wife.

One morning, though, he woke up to “a fusillade of shots from the Plaza de Cataluña, a hundred or two hundred yards away.” He wondered what to do: “The last thing I wished for was to be mixed up in some meaningless street-fight. To be marching up the street behind red flags inscribed with elevating slogans, and then to be bumped off from an upper window by some total stranger with a sub-machine-gun—that is not my idea of a useful way to die.”

Still, he was a journalist, so he headed south on La Rambla, Barcelona’s main street, to see what was happening. Suddenly, “shots rang out … and a crowd of panic-stricken people was rushing … away from the firing; up and down the street you could hear snap—snap—snap as the shopkeepers slammed the steel shutters over their windows.”

Orwell’s R&R quickly turned to Q: He began asking questions he could not answer. Orwell did not know that Yan Berzin, the Soviet Union’s chief military adviser to the Spanish left, was telling Moscow that POUM members were “scum” who must be “liquidated.” (Yes, they were fellow socialists, but they refused to worship Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.)

Orwell only later heard the screams in the night that changed the thinking of some socialists. During the May days in Barcelona he heard “devilish noise, echoing from thousands of stone buildings. … Crack-crack, rattle-rattle, roar—sometimes it died away to a few shots, sometimes it quickened to a deafening fusillade, but it never stopped while daylight lasted, and punctually next dawn it started again.”

George Orwell (back left) stands with POUM militia guarding POUM headquarters in Barcelona.

George Orwell (back left) stands with POUM militia guarding POUM headquarters in Barcelona. Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Orwell spent three days with a rifle on the roof of a building that housed a movie theater: If 20 or 30 Communist Party–directed “Assault Guards” in the Café Moka across the street began to attack the adjacent POUM headquarters, he was supposed to shoot to kill. (The Moka is still there, but it now caters to tourists.) It turned out that those particular Assault Guards chose not to assault, and Orwell spent much of the time reading Penguin Classics novels, but he had a great vantage point to see the madness of socialists shooting across the street at other socialists.

He also spent several hours in POUM-controlled buildings—the Hotel Rivoli, the Teatro Principal, and the Hotel Falcon. One’s now a hip hotel, one has its doors chained and its walls covered with graffiti, and the third is a library named after Andreu Nin, the POUM leader during those May Days. Orwell and his wife managed to escape from Barcelona just before the Communist Party gained firm control of the city and put out a warrant for Orwell’s arrest. His crime: independent thinking.

That June the Communist Party, now with total power, arrested the POUM’s Nin. Jesús Hernández Tomás, a party member who became Spain’s minister of education, later summarized the torture that came next: “Nin was not giving in. He was resisting until he fainted. His inquisitors were getting impatient. They decided to abandon the dry method to get results. Then the blood flowed, the skin peeled off, muscles torn, physical suffering pushed to the limits of human endurance. Nin was subjected to cruel pain of the most refined tortures. In a few days his face was a shapeless mass of flesh.”

Orwell began to discern that the goal of leaders was not equality but for them to be more equal than others, as the inhabitants of Animal Farm learned. He saw, as 1984 ends, that totalitarian leaders could and would insist that 2+2=5. Orwell did not believe in original sin, but in Barcelona he saw sin in action among socialists who flew similar flags: Compare the POUM and Communist Party banners shown below. That observation changed him. Orwell later said he once believed reporting of communist ruthlessness was capitalist propaganda, but he had learned: “It’s true.”

Barcelona, which changed Orwell, hardly remembers him. The Plaça de George Orwell became, because of rampant drug use there, the first square in Barcelona to sport a 24/7 security camera: Big Brother was watching. Graffiti dominate a white concrete pillar in the middle of Orwell Plaza. Some old church walls in the city remember the civil war: One in Plaça Felipe Neri shows shrapnel marks of bombs that killed 42 people. Most victims were children who had headed obediently to the church basement and been trapped by the fire.

What has Barcelona learned? The spot at the northern end of La Rambla that was once Communist Party headquarters is now an Apple Store. Chanel, Dior, and other high-end stores are across the street. Capitalism in practice has clearly won, but socialist ideology is still strong: Three of Barcelona’s left-wing parties totaled 60 percent of the vote in May 2019 municipal elections. La Rambla also sports a museum of sex, as does Fifth Avenue in New York City. As the Christian tide has receded, the search for other gods and goddesses has become more intense.

In May 1937, Orwell sensed “an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred.” Some of that is still palpable in Spain today. In a nationwide vote on Nov. 11, Spain’s fourth in four years, the country’s governing socialists won 120 seats in the 350-member legislature and are wooing other factions on the left: If successful, they will have a majority coalition. But two parties on the right, PP and Vox, jumped from 90 seats to 140. The big loser was Ciudadanos (Citizens), a moderate group that dropped from 57 seats to 10.

While politicians preened, Barcelona burned. During October riots, protesters demanding that Catalonia gain independence from Spain burned 700 garbage bins and damaged signs and traffic lights. That destruction of property evoked concern among some Spaniards that the fire next time will not merely consume trash: Lives will end in an ideological auto de fe.

José Gironella

José Gironella Paco Elvira/Cover/Getty Images

BUT HOW HAD SPAIN GOTTEN TO THAT POINT? Here’s where my favorite novel, The Cypresses Believe in God, comes in. José Gironella, a Spanish Christian conservative who died in 2003, shows how Spain from 1931 to 1936 polarized to the point where people could “tell from the trademark in a man’s socks where he stands on the mystery of the Incarnation.”

The first half of the novel is warm and humorous. The main character is Ignacio Alvear, who wants to help the poor and had been educated to think socialism is the way to do it. Ignacio’s father, Matías, leans that way also, but his mother is a devout Catholic. A younger brother, César, is saintly.

Bright family scenes contrast with political shadows, giving flesh to C.S. Lewis’ wise statement in Mere Christianity: “The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for.”

But others think the State is theirs to control, as both hard left and hard right become replacements for Christian faith. Anarchist José says, “You have to wipe out whatever stands in the way of the good of mankind.” Professors blacklist a Christian-oriented academy “because the director has refused to remove the crucifix from the classrooms.”

Early in the novel, saintly César gives free classes to poor children, and sees happiness, but by the midway point “even in the children’s eyes there was evidence of a certain disturbance. Now, as César looked at them carefully, those children frightened him. They were growing and they would absorb all the poison the neighborhood exuded.”

More: “There were moments when he felt like leaving the class, going up into a balcony as though it were a pulpit, and gathering together all the people below—the children, the sick, the barflies, the railroad workers, the gypsies—and talking to them of the Gospel, of the words it contains: ‘Blessed are the …’ But he did not dare. Because life there was like a liquid under pressure which might suddenly explode. The children grew in insolence, the grown-ups demanded justice and new clothes. … If he did manage to talk, they would think him crazy.”

In 1934, after the left tries a takeover and fails, “the gulf between victors and vanquished was ten times deeper. … The vanquished withdrew to their spiritual island, and defeat had united them in a common cause. Triumph had gone to the others’ heads.” The conservatives decided to “do nothing. Everything would go on the same.”

Ignacio has “a foreboding that all of them, together, were approaching a great catastrophe, and for that reason he loved his neighbor more than ever. … And the Bible! Great heavens! ‘Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell.’” But the head of the local Communist party makes a dirty fighter, Murillo, one of the leaders: “Cosme Vila was well aware that a man without scruples would come in handy some day. Naturally, they would have to keep an eye on him. But if he ever washed that raincoat, he’d lose half of his value.”

What has Barcelona learned? Capitalism in practice has clearly won, but socialist ideology is still strong.

Vila instructs the comrades: “‘You already know the ultimate goal: the total destruction of the bourgeois setup in the city and the province. The means we will use are those which best fit each case, so nobody is to get upset if we shout viva for something one day and muera the next. We believe that what counts is the future.’ … Cosme Vila felt equal hatred for the landowners, the military, and the clergy. He felt the same way about the dissident elements” among the revolutionaries. (One of whom became George Orwell.)

Given the differences in technology, Spaniards in 1936 seem like some of our internet lynch mobs: “Feeling rose like a rip-tide … the air would suddenly be filled with handbills that floated slowly groundward from roofs and housetops. They were anonymous and colored red and yellow with the four bars of blood. … A group of men filled to overflowing with anger … spent their time filling the city with signs. ‘Down with this one, Down with that one’ … with a skull underneath.”

Some of the flashpoints seem similar to our own. A Christian schoolteacher sexually abuses children. The government decrees no public prayers, and when a priest begins the Lord’s Prayer at a cemetery, “In a flash the policemen had leaped across the three steps … instantly a concert of shrill whistles broke out on the other side of the wall.” On the rear entrance of a church “someone had written: ‘Long live Me!’”

By 1936 Ignacio sees how “the prevailing atmosphere had addled people’s brains. A great transformation was taking place.” That’s when the anti-fascist revolutionary committees take control, lining up and murdering thousands—first conservatives, then revolutionaries who did not bow to Moscow—as the three-year Spanish Civil War begins.

The English translation of The Cypresses Believe in God, published in 1955, is 997 pages long yet beautifully composed and accelerating in intensity, like the orchestral piece Boléro by Maurice Ravel, who died in 1937. Some of the names of 1930s political movements are different now, yet Spain then is a warning to the United States today: One genteel socialist learns that when a leader “shouts ‘Long live our historic mission!’ you ask yourself how many coffins are going to be needed.”

But this great novel has, along with its relentless theme, a redemptive title: The Cypresses Believe in God. The tall Mediterranean cypress in the ancient world was a symbol of both mourning and God’s sovereignty. Ancient Israelites used cypresses to construct Solomon’s Temple. Their long, thin shape made cypresses, growing and gaining nurture through God’s power, an example of uprightness. Evergreens that grow in Barcelona still suggest the immortality of the soul.

This page is part of this issue’s 2019 Books of the Year section.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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