Two Visits to Barcelona

By Albert Weisbord

A cocked revolver thrust into my face by a worker patrol as I alighted from the train, was my introduction to the Spanish scene in Barcelona in May 1937. The crossing of the frontier had required five days and considerable wit as well as material assistance from the French anti-fascist committees. Breaking through at the little town of X which sits astride the Franco-Spanish border, I was still thirty-two kilometers from a railroad and had to thumb my way to Figueras, the nearest point at which I could catch a train.

We had got only as far as San Martin, a working class suburb of Barcelona, when the train stopped amid great excitement of the passengers. I was arriving in the thick of one of the most critical situations of the civil war, as far as Catalonia was concerned. Pavements were torn up, barricades five feet high had been erected in the streets, ambulances rushed about while machine gun and rifle fire cracked out from all sides. The revolution was an active volcano in process of eruption and the foreign visitor, however sympathetic, was there at his own risk.

It was five years since I had been in Barcelona. In 1932, the revolution had already been in progress two years. Yet the changes to be observed in the externals of its life were few. The native bootblack who had shined by shoes as I stepped off the train then had expressed it succinctly: "The revolution? The king is gone, yes, but otherwise what is changed? Nada, nada." It is true that the suppressed nationality of the Catalonians had been able to assert itself under the republic for the first time in many years. The Catalonian flag flew beside the tricolor of new Spain, a flag bespeaking the ancient tradition of the Catalonian State, its four red bars on a yellow ground representing the bloody fingers of St. George who slew the dragon there and supposedly wiped his hand on the yellow cloth at hand. The language of the people, a quaint mixture of eighteenth century French and Spanish could once be spoken on the streets and taught in the schools; the native songs and dances could appear in the open again.

But outside of these rather superficial changes, Barcelona in 1932 was still a city of the old regime. The clergy and the military, visible symbols of coercion, were everywhere as of old. The trains entering and leaving the city carried monks and nuns of various orders going about their business quite unmolested. At every street corner were the police and the civil guards, the latter with their traditional patent-leather pill-box hats. There was the same ubiquitous spying in the cafes and at all the centers where people congregated as under Alfonso. The beggars that clutched one on every street testified to the unsolved unemployment problem.

At night the avenues were filled with prostitutes and in the old quarters of the town vice did a flaming business. From lurid dives in narrow streets men painted like women leered openly at the passer by. Further out were the dance halls where women dancers with big firm breasts writhing to the torrid music of Andulusia or the Levante, exposed their lithe bodies to the gaze of the male public sipping coffee or liqueur and fondling themselves in ecstasy. Around the walls of these music halls were cubicles into which the men could retire with any one of the dancers they fancied, there to commit those sins which they could later confess and be absolved from in other cubicles not far distant.

To the foreigner sojourning in Spain the revolution had brought one great boon: the fall of the peseta which enabled one to live like a prince for a dollar a day. Barcelona had indeed become a haven for foreigners with little money who would have starved at home but were weathering the crisis very nicely. For these and for the tourists the attractions of the city were many. There was Montjuic Park, scene of the International Exposition of 1927, with its fountains which were periodically turned on from the huge control towers. The synchronization of beautiful sights and sounds made this place a little paradise. Flowers scented the atmosphere filled with the tinkling of the fountains. At night colored lights played on the waters in combinations which varied from moment to moment as the contours of the jets constantly shifted creating ever new and more gorgeous effects.

At Montjuic Park, too, one could become acquainted with the native Catalonian music and dancing. Both have quite a different character from those of other sections of Spain, so different as to claim some justice for the national aspirations of this little region. Whereas the Andalusian music is strongly individualistic and tinged with a Moorish color, with many runs and trills, the Catalan is simple, harmonious and collective, quite like the eighteenth century music of Southern France or perhaps like that of old England. Again, the typical Spanish dance (Andalusian or Castillian) is an individual one, a dance of rich cadences accented by the clack of castanets and the swish of skirts. But the Sardana and other Catalonian dances that were performed in the parks and in the streets before the cafes are folk dances, danced by numbers of people with stately complicated steps. Through this cultural differentiation Catalonia was expressing its own individuality.

For further amusement one could take the ride on the cable cars across the lagoon to Barcelonata. These cars had been constructed for the exposition and ran from two great towers hundreds of feet in the air. High in the cool air, one could overlook the whole city, from the fortress and prison of Montjuic at the harbor entrance, with its cannon frowning over the city, to the far off Mount Tibidabo backing Barcelona to the West. Mount Tibidabo was another lovely trip to make. At the end of the tramway line a cable car carried one to the top of the mountain. All about were the villas of the wealthy who could contemplate the dirt and noise of the city at this comfortable distance. Sipping liqueur on the terrace of the restaurant, one could see‹j‹all of Barcelona at one's feet, with a distant panorama of blue hills to one side and to the other the sparkle of the Mediterranean.

Tourists were still visiting the old churches, the Greek columns, Roman walls and other relics of antiquity. The grand column and statue dedicated to Christopher Columbus stood gazing out to sea as a reminder that the great maritime genius was considered a Catalan in this part of the world. The flower stalls crowded the Rambla de las Flores with their gorgeous display. The boulevards around the Plaza Catalunya still proudly displayed their handsome dwellings in native marble or stucco, some in that peculiar style of modernistic Catalonian architects which constructed buildings without symmetry and without angles, marked with irregular undulating lines. Here and there, however, one could see the peck marks on the buildings that bespoke rifle and machinegun fire.

Under the pleasant facade known to the tourist there surged in the working class quarters and on the docks a life of feverish aspiration and struggle in which various organizations carried on their work under a semi-legal status. Strikes, police raids, arrests and demonstrations were the occasional outbursts of this pent-up class conflict under the republic as under Alfonso. When I visited Andreas Nin, head of one of the workers' factions, it was surreptitiously, for he had still to live in hiding, constantly dodging the police.

During the five years of upheaval since 1932, the curve of the revolution has been upward for these toilers' groups which have now emerged from their underground retreats to claim millions of adherents. The appearance of Barcelona in May 1937 proclaimed unmistakably that the proletariat was now asserting itself. All the important buildings in the center of the city were occupied by workers organizations. The top floors of Hotel Oriente had been taken over by the Syndicalists and on Via Durutti (renamed after a popular Anarchist leader who fell in battle a year ago) the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.) made its headquarters in the magnificent building which formerly housed the Chamber of Commerce. Hotel Falcon had been converted into a center for the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M.), especially for its soldiers on leave from the front. On the exclusive Pasco de Gracias a beautiful building had been taken over by the Unification Socialist Party of Catalonia (P.S.U.C.) and was now the Case Karl Marx. An enormous propaganda sign covered its basement and first floor but when the fighting began in May, at once the sign had been ripped and the machine guns concealed behind it had opened fire on the revolutionary workers who were behind the barricades in the streets.

One startling innovation was the huge picture of Stalin three stories high which stared at one from the facade of the Hotel Colon, the swankiest hotel in Barcelona which had also been requisitioned by the P.S.U.C. It seems the picture had been accompanied by a picture of Lenin of similar size, but Lenin's picture had fallen down (let those who will look for a hidden symbolism in this incident) and had never been replaced.

Las Remblas and Plaza Catalunya were a riot of color not only with the red flags of the Communists and Socialists and the red and black flags of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, but with other enormous banners and signs placed over the avenue and center of the square. Here in bright pictures and large letters the masses were called upon to fight fascism and to build a new society. The old street names had been replaced to honor Spanish revolutionists or even Russian celebrities who had caught popular fancy (such as Calle Pavlov or Calle Tolstoy).

The sunny calm that in 1932 had pervaded the city's thoroughfares had given way to a contagious atmosphere of strain. It was civil war now in all its grimness. Many streets were still torn up where the recent barricades had been erected. The barracks of the old guards near the Columbus column were in a state of complete destruction, a reminder of the July days of 1936, with huge shell holes marking the spot where the cannon of Montjuic in the hands of the workers had smashed the resistance of the guards and had forced them to come down from the top of the column where they had placed their machine guns and to surrender.

The straw-sandaled picturesque dancers in the streets, the gay crowds hanging about the sidewalk cafes, all had vanished. Now groups stood tensely to hear the radio reports of casualties from the front and the stern directives for the citizen on how to win the war. At night all lights were out; searchlights played over the city and on every corner placards notified people where to go in case of an air raid or bombardment. Soldiers, home on leave from the front, were everywhere.

But if the old civil guards in the patent leather hats had disappeared to go with Franco, new guards and police, the Asaltos and Carbineros, had been formed by the conservative elements in the government. These bodies were now apolitical and deadly enemies of the old Workers Patrol Control which had been dominated by the trade unions and revolutionary parties. Once again there was appearing the ubiquitous spy and the night raid. Daily, nightly, individuals known to be active members of this or that revolutionary organization would simply disappear never to be seen again.

Even for the moneyed stranger life was not what it used to be. Few hotels could boast of hot water or warm baths. Food was becoming poor in quality even in the pensions and restaurants where meals were restricted to two courses with one small piece of bread per customer. For the rest of the people there were bread and milk lines while olive oil, tobacco, charcoal, soap and medical supplies had become very scarce. In general only simple fare was obtainable consisting of rabbit, muscles, plain cuts of meat and rice, the standbys of the poorer classes. Nevertheless in certain restaurants patronized by the officials and by well-to-do strangers in the know such delicacies as lobster, chicken, ice cream and strawberries might be enjoyed. Evidently Catalonia was still far from having realized the Socialist Commonwealth where all would be treated alike.

Gone were the pleasant diversions which formerly used to ease the stay of the tourists in the city. In the fashionable neighborhood near Tibidabo the buildings had been sequestered as sanitoriums or hospitals for the wounded, homes for refugees or orphaned children and similar institutions of social welfare. The cable cars, deserted, no longer operated. The fountains of Montjuic likewise were silent... who would want to spend money on colored waters when there was dire need for arms and munitions for the front and hundreds of thousands of the best blood of Spain were dying on the field of battle? The fortress of Montjuic was still there (The Anarchists had captured it for a brief moment during the fighting of the May Days) but as for the old prison, the bastille in which so many champions of the people had suffered torments in the old days, the populace of Barcelona had stormed it and released the prisoners.

As for the music halls with their accompanying prostitution, after July, 1936, when the workers had crushed the fascist revolt throughout Catalonia and were on the road to becoming the chief power, there had been a determined effort to stomp out these hotbeds of vice. Many of the pimps were killed and the women liberated. Educational posters were spread throughout the city advising the soldiers that prostitution was the disgrace of the army and the degradation of the women; it was an agency of Franco and must be stamped out. But in the months that had elapsed since then, during which the influence of the workers' organizations was waning, there had been a general relaxation of discipline and the dance halls were now open once more with their languishing sirens. By June the Syndicalists had been ousted from Hotel Oriente where now a hot abaret flourished.

How far the revolution had emancipated the women of Spain was an intriguing question for all those who had followed the heroic participation of these women in the actual fighting in defence of their country. To what extent had the old semi-harem status of the feminine sex, so strongly rooted in the traditions of the country, actually broken down? It must be confessed that, in spite of the efforts of the progressive forces in Spain, the enlightenment of the women has not proceeded very far. In everyday life the customs of centuries still had their grip on personal relationships.

Women in Spain were still divided into two simple groups, prostitutes and respectable women, the latter consisting of cloistered virgins and fanatically loyal mates. Revolutionary soldiers could be found beating their wives and even so-called professional revolutionists were still ready to kill their life companions if they were caught conversing with other men. It is true that a certain breath of freedom has blown over the women. Its first expression have been rather freakish ones inspired by Hollywood, heads bleached blond and pained faces glaringly incongruous among the natural dark beauties of Spain. Women constituted still but a small percentage of the membership in the revolutionary organizations, and the women secretariats which had been recently appointed were having an exceedingly difficult time of it to make the men understand the need of drawing the women into the movement and the women to understand their place in the new social order.

Similarly with the school system. The Generalidad was making efforts to introduce new methods and curricula, yet in only two or three of the nine high schools of Barcelona had they succeeded to any great extent. Old fashioned methods of drill and an antiquated routine still prevailed in the rest. Attendance of children at school was not strictly enforced, although a great part of the people was still illiterate. Yet one could see that much more reading was being done on the whole by the adult population. In Las Rambles, adjacent to the flower stalls, large numbers of book stalls had now opened up selling revolutionary literature of all sorts. But it must be admitted that among the serious pamphlets and books, "literature" of a quite different sort was common: pornographic novels and magazines that purported to speak of physical culture, of nudism and the emancipation of women but in reality were cheap commercial ventures calculated only to stir up the sexual passions of the "liberated" readers.

Gone was the censorship of the clergy, as were the priests, monks and nuns themselves. The churches were no longer anything but blackened shells, where fire had finished whatever bombs and dynamite had left of their walls. Not a church was left standing intact in Barcelona except the old Cathedral which, singularly enough, had been preserved by all factions as a work of art.

Nothing so sharply characterized the change in regime that had taken place as the nature of the newspapers in circulation. All the old sheets that one used to read, El Debat, A.B.C., etc., were nowhere to be seen and their place was taken by the papers of the workers' groups, formerly poorly printed sheets issued weekly in small numbers, but now grown to powerful dailies. Now it was "Soli", Solidaridad Obrera, organ of the C.N.T. leading the way with a circulation of about 225,000, La Batalla, paper of the P.O.U.M., El Treball and Las Noticias, P.S.U.C. papers in Catalan and Spanish, that were most read. Many of the radio stations in operation in May - later they were all taken over by the government © were controlled by the same workers' organizations. The programs that blared out most frequently consisted of news from the front, international news and propaganda or proclamations.

The workers factions were by no means in harmony among themselves, the chief quarrel being between those who wished to retain the present republic while fighting Franco, and those who wanted to pursue the revolution further along the lines of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. These latter groups (The Anarchists, the Syndicalists and the P.O.U.M.) had been mainly responsible for the collectivization of industry which is one of the most fundamental changes that have been effected in Catalonia. Restaurants, means of transportation, as well as all key industries have been thus collectivized.

During the fighting of the July Days of 1936, many owners of industry, shopkeepers and restaurateurs, tired of the perpetual tumult and fearful of their lives should a social revolution be successful, fled the country. To take over the abandoned enterprises and operate them was at once a natural step and a necessity for the continued economic existence of Catalonia. The expropriation was carried out principally by the C.N.T. which in the course of the past year has become the leading industrial corporation as well as the most powerful proletarian group. The change of direction was not effectuated without considerable confusion during the early period of workers' control.

Some idea of the state of affairs may be given by a glance at the auto accident statistics in Barcelona. The transport industry had been collectivized, all available autos and autobuses as well as the tramways and railroads having been seized and operated by the C.N.T. working with the U.G.T. wherever necessary. Of course all the workers' groups also requisitioned cars which were driven about the city on their own administrative business. During the first three months of 1937 auto accidents in Barcelona numbered 865, a figure almost three times as high as those of the similar period in the preceding year (292). At a time when all energies had to be conserved to win the war, 3,808 vehicles had been destroyed with a value of over 27 million pesetas in the course of the past ten months ending May, 1937.

Another indication of the chaos which prevailed was the currency which absolutely refused to meet the requirements of the people. Silver had completely disappeared by May 1937 due to the fall of the peseta and the resultant speculation in the medium of exchange. It had reached the point where shop keepers issued their own "money" as did the unions in the collectivized restaurants.

In spite of the incipient chaos which was being corrected the Catalonian workers were determined at all costs to keep what they had taken in July. I was amply convinced of this after several visits to some of the collectivized work-places. At some of the factories great barricades had been erected, worker sentinels standing guard at the gates to meet whatever force might present itself to seize these collectivized plants. That their hold on the factories might really be challenged was indicated by the action of the Generalidad government in seizing the telephone central in Barcelona from the workers of the C.N.T. who had held it since July, 1936. It was this action of the government which had precipitated the barricade fighting in early May in the midst of which I had arrived in the city.

Enthusiasm was the pervading spirit in those worker-controlled industries, although here and there one would hear some complaints that conditions were no better now, that the officials of the unions were trying to rule in place of the old employers and so on. Output per hour had increased and the workers put in extra hours uncomplainingly, feeling that their products were needed to defeat the enemy on the battle front.

To some of these workers, a great deal was on the road to being realized, the ideal of Socialism or Anarchism (according to which faction they belonged) for which they had fought, suffered and bled for many bitter years both under Alfonso and under the republic. They had won their industries now; this was a first step. Yet how precarious was their hold upon them? Not merely was there a lack of unanimity among the workers' forces themselves, but the enemy that had wrested part of Spain from the Loyalists, that was laying siege to Madrid and was swallowing the Basque country, would now and again bare its teeth at Catalonia also.

It was May 29th when I had returned from a visit to the comparatively peaceful Aragon front that at an early hour of the morning seven rebel bombing planes "visited" Barcelona dropping large numbers of heavy bombs, causing over two hundred casualties and leaving gaping holes of an earthquake in the portion of the city near the waterfront. My hotel was situated in the very center of the bombed area. only those who have been through the war can appreciate this experience.

It was 3:45 in the morning when I was awakened by a peculiar hum of the sirens and above it the steady droning of airplanes. I reached for a switch only to see the light go out before my eyes. My room, the hotel, the whole city, were plunged in thick darkness. There was the steady approach of the planes, second by second drawing nearer and nearer, the rat©a©tat of machine guns, the futile puffs of the anti-©aircraft gun and then the enormous detonations of the bombs loosened by the craft above us.

What to do? Run to the refuge? But it was pitch black and too late now! The planes were almost overhead. Besides, I was in my pajamas. Curious how the ridiculous can crop up in moments of stark terror when death may be a moment away. The terrible explosions came all around in quick succession, glass shattered and walls of nearby buildings crumbled with thunderous roars; screams rang out. There was nothing to do... the horror seemed interminable.

The planes passed, and the first relief gave way to overpowering, unreasoning hate and longing for revenge. To get them, those murderers that could get away so easily. The planes returned but the terror is not so great now. I throw the window open and crane my head out. Perhaps I shook my fists at them, I don't know.

In the early dawn everyone went out into the streets to see the dead amid the frantic sorrow of survivors, amid the great gaping holes and the ruined buildings. Bombs have been dropped that can make a hole sixty feet deep in soft earth. When they hit a dwelling they crash through five stories only to explode in the cellar, thanks to a delayed fuse, and destroy the very refuge where the people are supposed to be safe. Indeed that is what happened in the past and the strange case is given of a family on the top floor finding two walls gone, the staircase destroyed and no way to get down while the bomb had passed through their apartment to crash through those below and completely destroy the cellar refuge with thirty lives snuffed out.

I then learned that such bombardments have exactly the opposite effect to what is calculated. Not fear but frenzied eagerness to rush at the enemy and to fight to the bitter end is the result on the general population. I learned, too, that there must have been some fascist spies in the city because the center of the attack was the docks and harbors. The very spot where a munitions ship had been unloading explosives the evening before had been destroyed by the bombs, but the ship had been moved during the night and so the fascists had failed in their purpose. I shuddered to think what would have happened had the ship been found and struck. And I wondered if this was the destruction that but seven planes could make in a few minutes, what could seventy planes do in an hour and what if they had gas as well as explosives and inflammatory bombs?

Whatever may be the outcome of the present civil war, it is clear that old Spain and old Catalonia are gone for good. Something very fundamental has taken place of which all the social manifestations I witnessed are but the external dress and coloring. The spirit of the people had undergone a profound upheaval and whether they move to Socialism or are defeated by Franco with his German and Italian aids, a new life is being carved out of the blood and hunger and travail of the people and the old cannot return.