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Rojos in the Hills

John McDonald investigates the Spanish Civil War

The Law of Historic Memory or to give its full title, La Ley por la que se reconocen y amplían derechos y se establecen medidas en favor de quienes padecieron persecución o violencia durante la Guerra Civil y la Dictadura was passed by Congress on the 31st of October 2007. Amongst other things it offers compensation and recognition to the victims of the three year conflict. However, the ranks of surviving Republicans must be diminishing rapidly. The Deputy Prime Minister in 2007, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said that the legislation should “heal wounds without re-opening them”.

The Documentary Centre of the Historical Memory conserves the best poster collections of the Spanish Civil War existing in the world

Are the wounds still suppurating?

I had the opportunity of speaking with some Civil War veterans. They included ex-combatants and civilians living in the villages of the Sierra Subbètica. I was a bit concerned about the willingness of people to speak openly and imagined conversing in hushed tones while secreted in some dark corner. The reality was different people spoke openly even with enthusiasm interrupting each other to get their point across. The progress of time had certainly numbed many raw nerves.

I met Amalia in Zuheros as she enjoyed the early evening breeze sitting on her doorstep with two of her neighbours. We discussed the events of over 70 years ago. Her most vivid recollection was the arrival of the Falangists in the village. They shaved her hair for reasons she didn't understand “They took my hair away but left a knot on the top of my head. They dragged me by it”. Those with a grudge against her family or perhaps afraid of similar treatment jeered as she was paraded around the village. When I asked about executions she simply said that some men had been 'taken away', old feuds settled. It was simple! Tell the local militia commander that your rival was of a different political persuasion. He did the rest.

Another resident of Zuheros José Poyato, told me there were Rojos in the hills between Zuheros and Baena . They exchanged fire during the day. At night they used the echoes from the surrounding Sierra to call to their friends in the opposite camp. One man told me that Republican militiamen slept in the village after firing on it during the day. The Republicans never entered the village in anger and from the way he was speaking the stand-off was good sport.

In Iznájar I met Antonio whose uncle had served with the Nationalist Ejército de Africa in Spanish Morocco. His uncle had told him that in 1936 the local council was Republican. After they communalised the produce from the surrounding wheat fields they are olive groves now, support was lost and the Nationalists replaced them. A Republican force from Loja did try to retake the town but were driven back by the small garrison. The handful of defenders moved quickly from position to position making the enemy believe they were there in greater numbers. Those I spoke to who were involved with the Nationalists had little or no contact with the Italian or German war machines. Their only interests were, first survival and second what was best for their village. Politics was of no interest to them and the grandiose plans of the Republicans meant nothing if the agricultural system collapsed. The only reticence in answering my questions came about when I mentioned the bombing of Almería, Málaga, Guernica and Madrid. “We didn't command the Condor squadrons!” was the terse reply, this was my only question that seemed to concern them.

The Restaurante Rosi is at the northern end of Iznájar’s Bridge and here I met Fernando and Manuel. Both from families who supported the Republic. Fernando was twelve when the Falangists came for him, tipped off by a friend. Fernando spent two weeks living rough in the campo trying to avoid the death squads. He told me that his family gave food to the Maquis, Republicans who carried on the fight after Franco’s victory in 1939. When I asked them whether they had any knowledge of the International Brigades, Manuel told me of his uncle who saved an Italian serving with the Garibaldi or Figlio Brigade. “He was being hunted by the Italian Fascists, my uncle hid and fed him”.
When asked if they had any bitterness towards Britain and the United States for not ousting Franco in 1945 they just shrugged their shoulders. “We were not interested in politics, if it got to dangerous to be republican we became Nationalists” said Fernando. This philosophy was repeated by most of the village people I spoke to. The importance of politics diminishes the closer to the soil one lives.

These people supported who ever they needed to in order to survive, in that respect they were impartial. Their wounds were not sectarian and must therefore be resilient to re-opening. It is for us outsiders that impartiality is a problem.

One particular villager, a learned man who enjoyed the simplicity of village life informed me that the impartial account of the Civil War has yet to be written. I realized how true this was when in Zuheros. While interviewing one of the village elders he referred to the Rojos in the hills! Zuheros was Nationalist! This shook me. I have an affinity with Zuheros and an intense hatred for fascism so my very simple mind told me unconsciously that Zuheros must be Republican. To discover it was Nationalist was very worrying. Even I, a foreigner who was born over a decade after the events in question couldn’t manage impartiality!

I do not believe that the people of the Sierra Subbètica have much interest in whether or not pensions are awarded to the few remaining ex-combatants. They have put the past behind them and in its rightful context. Their wounds are now tough scar tissue. They may not forget the past but they have forgiven.

John MacDonald - www.caratacus.eu