Bringing Home the Spanish Civil War

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MADRID -- The place once known by soldiers as the cookhouse is now shut, with dogs barking menacingly at anybody who tries to peer through a crack in the gate into its whitewashed courtyard.

For the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades who were served coffee and toast there in the early hours of Feb. 12, 1937, the cookhouse provided a final moment of comfort before they faced the violence of the Spanish Civil War for the first -- and perhaps last -- time.

After that breakfast, the soldiers were told to march from the cookhouse to a nearby hilltop. Full of repugnance for Fascism but bereft of military experience, some of the men ditched their coats and other items along the way to make the uphill walk easier. They assumed that they could easily recover such equipment on the way back.

One naïve member of the brigades recalled in his diary that when the first shots were fired across the olive groves, he thought the sound of bullets whizzing past was crickets chirping. He and his companions had just come under fire from some of the elite troops of Gen. Francisco Franco, who had made their way from the Jarama Valley up the other side of what is known to this day as Suicide Hill.

Such dramatic events are recalled by David Mathieson, an Englishman who started organizing day trips last summer to show visitors how the battle for Madrid helped shape the Spanish Civil War.

On each of four itineraries, Mr. Mathieson focuses on a facet of the fighting around Madrid, describing it in his own words as well as using the accounts of writers who traveled to the front lines, among them Ernest Hemingway.

He sketches some background for those on his tours. In July 1936 some officers of the Spanish Army organized a military coup to oust the ailing left of center Republican government in Madrid. Attempts at progressive reform of sectors from the economy to the education system had met with stiff resistance from conservative forces that included landowners and the Catholic Church.

As democratic politics broke down, the rebel officers stepped in to "restore order." They expected to install a new authoritarian government, but instead of a swift regime change, Spain was plunged into a bloody civil war that lasted for three years. Up to half a million people died in a conflict that also became the focus of international tension. Hitler and Mussolini provided military support for the forces led by General Franco while Stalin backed the Republic, and each side used the war as a dress rehearsal for the greater conflict to come: World War II. After his victory in 1939, however, Franco kept Spain out of World War II and stayed in power until his death in 1975, after which Spain returned to democracy.

Mr. Mathieson completed a doctorate in modern history at London University, and has followed an unorthodox career path, working as an adviser to a British foreign minister, then as a political analyst for a Spanish bank and most recently as an economics teacher in Germany.

But after moving with his family to Madrid 15 years ago, he developed a passion for the history of the civil war, which he traces back to happening upon a memorial to a fallen soldier, which he has made the starting point for his day trips.

The memorial stands on the edge of Debod Park, itself home to one of the most curious buildings in Madrid: an ancient temple that Spain received in 1968 as a token of gratitude from Egypt for helping preserve some of its Abu Simbel temples.

Mr. Mathieson came across the memorial on a weekend stroll around the park with his daughter. She wanted to know what it stood for, but since the memorial's plaque provided no explanation, "I first had to find out the answer for myself," he said.

On the site of what is now the park stood the Montaña barracks, built in the 1860s and occupied by as many as 3,000 soldiers. When Franco launched his coup, officers within the garrison bickered but ultimately did not join the insurrection and instead remained loyal to the Republic, thereby ensuring that Madrid did not fall immediately under Fascist control.

"Finding out how important the turmoil inside Montaña proved for the war made me also realize just how much Spaniards continue to feel uneasy about discussing what happened and prefer instead to airbrush many of the facts," Mr. Mathieson said.

Indeed, Madrid has no civil war museum. Some of its streets and parks contain military bunkers and gun towers as well as physical scars of the war, but mostly without any plaques or signs.

From Madrid, we drove about 40 minutes to the cookhouse, and then set off on the walk up Suicide Hill and along a ridge that overlooks the Jarama Valley. These days, rabbits rather than soldiers pop out of the still-visible dugouts. But along the way we also got to pick up an eclectic collection of shells, shrapnel, bottle tops and the occasional can of sardines, once part of the military's food supplies. The place also affords unusual and spectacular views of Madrid, with its cluster of skyscrapers shimmering in the distance as the sun starts to set.

The battle of Jarama started after Franco's troops got bogged down on the southern outskirts of Madrid, struggling to cross the Manzanares River and facing unexpected resistance there. A frustrated Franco then ordered a large contingent of his veteran and battle-hardened Moroccan troops to circumvent Madrid to isolate the city by cutting off the road linking it to Valencia, where his Republican opponents had moved the government.

Caught by surprise, the Republicans responded by calling into action the volunteers from the International Brigades -- mostly British and American -- who had been stationed close to the Valencia road. The brigades suffered huge losses that February but kept the Valencia road open for another two years, making Jarama one of the longest battles in the war.

Mr. Mathieson focuses his Jarama storytelling on one of the volunteers who fought and died there, Charles Donnelly. He was an Irish poet and left-wing activist who joined the brigades in 1936 after hearing that Franco had staged his coup. Like many Irish, Donnelly chose to fight alongside American rather than British brigadiers, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Division. He was killed on Feb. 27, 1937, about two weeks into the fighting. His body lies among the many unmarked graves that dot the Jarama valley.

We drove on to the nearby town of Morata, which remained under Republican control throughout the war despite heavy bombing by German and Italian aircraft supporting Franco's troops. Morata today is a pleasant place for lunch, with a couple of restaurants that serve suckling pig and other local specialties. The town also has a private civil war museum set up by one of its inhabitants, Gregorio Salcedo, who first started combing the Jarama battlefield as a child in search of scrap metal.

"I didn't know anything about the war, but I was hungry and knew that there was money to be made from finding metal," Mr. Salcedo recalled.

Eventually Mr. Salcedo started to keep some of his findings, and added to them by scouring Madrid flea markets for battlefield memorabilia. The exhibits, labeled in Spanish, include an impressive assortment of weaponry as well as original military maps of the area that underscore the strategic importance of capturing the Valencia road.

Apart from that museum, and given how little Franco and subsequent Spanish governments have done to commemorate the battle of Jarama, it can be hard to picture just what kind of atrocities were once committed across this parched countryside. But as he takes visitors around the abandoned dugouts and trenches, Mr. Mathieson leaves visitors in no doubt as to the importance of the events that unfolded here.

"You cannot understand fully the modern history of Europe without knowing something about the Spanish Civil War," he said. "It's around these hills that Fascism for the first time ran into serious and armed opposition, from people who had even crossed the Atlantic to stop it."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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