Spain: terror, memory, resistance

At the end of October, the first international anti-fascist congress ‘La Desbandá’ took place in the Spanish town of Mollina in Andalusia. The conference dealt with the themes of the commemoration of the events of La Desbandá as genocide by the Andalusian authorities, reparations by the government and strategies to fight for truth in historical discourse. The idea for the conference was born within the La Desbandá socio-cultural association, which is dedicated to the remembrance of the massacre of Malaga’s civilian population and anti-fascist activities. Those involved in organising the conference included members of this association, activists from other anti-fascist organisations, victims of the Francoist regime, their descendants, researchers: historians, archaeologists, teachers.

On the anniversary of these events, we are publishing an interview with one of the conference organisers and ASC La Desbandá member Manuel García Morales.

Interview by Wojciech Albert Lobodzinski.

What La Desbandá actually was?

85 years ago, on 7 February 1937, 250,000-300,000 people, faced with a combined attack by fascist troops from the west to the north of the country, began a mass flight from Málaga. Their destination was Almeria, connected to the city by a coastal road. The majority of the port’s population, which at the time numbered around 200,000, was joined by around 90,000 people fleeing from eastern Cadiz, the southern mountains of the Seville area and Córdoba. In addition, around 50,000 people joined this exodus, arriving in the Malaga area from the southern part of Granada. This is why the figure of around 300,000 total fleeing is considered the most likely by the most recent historical studies.

Approx. 10,000 people died during the escape under fire from planes and warships under Franco’s command. In contrast, around 150,000 managed to reach Almeria and then made their way along the Mediterranean coast as far as Catalonia. Thousands of them then made it to France. The rest were captured by fascist troops. Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, recalled in 2021 that her father Antonio Hidalgo, then seven years old, was one of the refugees.

We can convey the atmosphere of this escape by quoting The Manchester Guardian’s account: “The evacuation of Malaga (…) was to take on the character of a human cataclysm unknown in European history. The road became an inferno bombarded by Spanish fascist ships and German and Italian planes… Death soon covered the road”.

There is another noteworthy account of these events. The writer Arthur Koestler, who was a correspondent for the Daily Worker, described the situation in Malaga as follows:

“At around two o’clock in the afternoon the exodus from Malaga begins. The road has become a river of trucks, cars, mules, carts, terrified people fighting among themselves. This flood is sucking in and sweeping away everything: civilians, deserters, the civil governor, some officers of the General Staff… the road is still open, but under fire from warships and planes that are shelling the refugees. So nothing can stop the river: it flows on and is constantly fed by streams of fear”.

Why the fear among the civilian population?

The refugees heading from Malaga to Almeria.

The Malaga region was one of the most pro-republican parts of Spain before the civil war. This posed an obvious threat of massacre by the fascists. Civilians fled in terror as they had news of the cruelty and barbarity with which fascist troops, especially Moroccan troops, treated the population of the territory they occupied. The rebel General Queipo de Llano, commanding the operation from Seville over the radio directly promised his troops that in the ‘conquered’ territories they would plunder and rape.

On 9 February, in one of his radio speeches, he stated: “Intelligence from our air force reported to me that large masses of people were fleeing towards Motril. In order to accompany them in their escape and make them run faster, we sent our planes.”

Was there any chance for the Malaga people to defend themselves against the advancing enemy?

Unfortunately, no. Malaga’s defence was based on around 12,000 men, poorly organised and armed with around 8,000 rifles and no artillery. Most of them were not even soldiers, but peasants and militiamen.

The fascists attacked the city with a force of some 25,000 trained and well-armed troops, including 15,000 Moroccan colonial troops, the ‘Moors’, who had artillery at their disposal. Moreover, they were supported by battle cruisers, Canarias, Baleares and Almirante Cervera, under the command of Francisco de Paula de Borbón y La Torre, Duke of Seville and cousin of King Alfonso XIII [King of Spain, son (heir) of King Alfonso XII and his wife, Queen Maria Cristina. He reigned formally from his birth until the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 – author].

Italians were also involved in the attack….

Yes, the attack involved 10,000 so-called Black Shirts, i.e. Italian fascist militias, Benito Mussolini’s volunteer guard under the command of Lieutenant General Mario Roatt. These, in addition, were supported by some 100 aircraft belonging to the Italian Air Force and armoured cars.

Where did the agony of the civilians end?

Fascist troops pursued the civilians fleeing towards Almeria until the International Brigades stopped them. One of these was the 13th International Brigade [this number was later adopted by the Polish Jarosław Dąbrowski Brigade – author], with the Chapayev Battalion, in which men from 21 nationalities served, including Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians and Swiss men. It was they, together with Henri Vuillemin’s Franco-Belgian battalion, who stopped the Fascist advance at Castell de Ferro and pushed it back to Motril.

Where did the idea for a conference on this topic come from?

Since the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, events commemorating the 1937 massacre have taken place in various Andalusian towns and cities. There were local marches, such as the one from Málaga to the beach of La Araña, the place from which the vast majority of people fled on 7 February 1937; the march from the Motril area on the Granada coast, towards the mouth of the Guadalfeo river, or the march from Aguadulce to the town of Almería, where the escapees arrived.

In February 2017, we decided to organise a walking march, over a distance of around 220 kilometres, from Málaga to Almeria in memory of La Desbanda. Previously, an agreement had been reached between the Andalusian Alpine Federation, whose board of directors proposed to organise the march as a sporting event with the intention of commemorating the victims of 1937, and various groups of Andalusian left-wing activists who also had the idea of organising a march to commemorate the massacre on the ‘road of death’. The organisation of the event and the leading role in it was handed over to the Alpine Federation and it was agreed that members of the parties would take part in the event, carrying their flags and banners giving a memorial character to the march.

Has the march caused a further consolidation of the movement?

By all means! After this march, which was a great success in terms of participation and social impact, a group of people, some of whom belonged to the Alpine Federation and others to left-wing parties and trade union activists, decided to set up the La Desbandá Sports Association. Its aim was to organise a march every year and thus commemorate the route from Málaga to Almería with information signs, milestones that would explain which way Desbandá had walked and the most important sections. The La Desbandá Sports Association then consolidated to form the La Desbandá Social and Cultural Association.

It was in 2019 that the organisation began to talk about the need to work on broadening the scope of the commemoration. After all, the mass escape from Andalusia has a common thread with the escape through Catalonia in February 1939.

After the Catalan Offensive carried out by the Francoists in 1939, the fall of Barcelona in January, the fascists reached within 50 km of the French border on 3 February. On 8 February they occupied Figueres. At the same time, Republican troops were ordered to withdraw to the French border. Hundreds of thousands of Republican soldiers, women, children and old people marched to the French border on foot and on carts, buses and trucks across the Pyrenees. Their retreat was covered by units of the Republican Army, including the International Brigades, among them the Jaroslaw Dabrowski Brigade. It could be said that this was a repeat of the events of Malaga. Nazi aviation from the Condor Legion bombed the escape route. Between 400,000 and 500,000 Republican refugees crossed the border, among them the President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, Prime Minister Juan Negrín and the Chief of Staff of the Republican Army, Vicente Rojo, as well as the President of Catalonia, Lluís Companys, and members of the Catalan Government. Apart from the similarities between the two situations, why does the theme of La Desbanda appear?

Firstly, it was people from Málaga and the Andalusia region, who had fled to Catalonia, who took part in these battles as well as the escape. It was they who later organised armed resistance against Nazism in France. Some died in the camps, some survived the concentration camps and then emigrated, along with exiles from all over Spain, to places such as Latin America or North Africa. These threads have allowed us to assemble quite a coalition of organisations dedicated to remembering these events. The following year, in 2020, from 6-8 November, we organised an international meeting in Almeria, where we prepared the 1st International Congress of Desbandá, with a view to holding it in 2021. However, it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was finally held at the end of October 2022 in Mollin.

Which communities did the congress bring together?

The idea came from the Socio-Cultural Association of La Desbandá, but was echoed and accepted, firstly by other remembrance associations throughout Spain, secondly by republican organisations, thirdly by left-wing parties and, finally, by scholars and academics studying the modern history of Andalusia and Spain.

The proposal also resonated with European and feminist organisations because of the essential role women played in supporting girls, boys and the elderly while on the run, in exile or during the most difficult moments of the war and post-war period.

Who are the people working on this case, are they just descendants of the victims of the fascist regime?

The victims of Franco’s regime – the form adopted by fascism in Spain – were the majority of Spanish society. The coup d’état and the anti-fascist war [a section of the Spanish left rejects the use of the term ‘civil war’ – author] that followed, as well as the subsequent repression of Franco’s regime, were crimes against humanity. The struggle for democratic memory in Spain therefore involves not only the descendants of those who were victims of Francoism, but also the descendants of those who did not experience the repression, and even the descendants of politicians, military and civilians who supported the coup and participated in the post-war repression.

From the point of view of the universal principles of human rights and the ideals of social democracy, freedom and equality, it is not difficult to be involved in the development of democratic memory in Spain. A country, I would remind you, in which thousands of people murdered by fascism still lie in mass graves and unmarked places, and fascist generals and soldiers are still honoured with monuments in the streets and squares throughout the country.

What place does the memory of La Desbanda have in the current debate on Andalusian history?

The way modern Andalusian history is taught needs to be debated.

Currently, in primary, secondary and university education, not only is La Desbanda not mentioned as a war crime of colossal proportions, but nothing is said about anything related to the proclamation of the Second Republic, the coup d’état, the anti-fascist war and the post-war period.

The subject is absent from school curricula and largely ignored by Spaniards. Only academic researchers and university research groups deal with this period of Spanish history!

It was the grassroots mobilisations, year after year, that brought to light existing studies, which in turn generated new studies and, above all, began to reach some of the Andalusian population who were unaware of these events.

A photo exhibition accompanying the Desbanda congress in October.

And is it present in the debate about the legacy of the Civil War?

La Desbandá as a tragic and brutal episode is present in the legacy of the war in Spain, a war that we do not think of as a civil war.

For us it is an anti-fascist war in which the popular classes fought heroically against the colonial army of the Spanish monarchy, against Hitler’s and Mussolini’s troops and against the representatives of big capital and the petty bourgeoisie, mainly landowners.

However, such an image of this war seems to be absent from Spain itself….

Exactly. What is absent are debates on the legacy of the war itself. There is no broader view of its legacy and socio-economic effects. The only massively propagated thesis is that Franco’s dictatorship saved Spain from the chaos and destruction to which the anarchists, communists and socialists had led it. When Franco’s dictatorship was replaced by democracy, the privileges of the elites dating back to the dictatorship remained intact, apart from the recognition of minimal democratic freedoms and democratic elections.

Left-wing governments, the first of which was the PSOE government in 1982, may have emerged thanks to the right to vote, but power over finance, industry, landowners, the ecclesiastical, military, police and judicial apparatus and, above all, the media, remained essentially in the hands of the heirs to Franco’s dictatorship.

The PSOE, the first party committed to the Republic and the Popular Front before 1939 to come to power, chose a policy of forgetting, of not looking back, of regarding the war as a fratricidal clash. She refused to regard it as the struggle of a people trampled by centuries of oppression by an aristocratic minority who had the blessing of the Catholic Church to remain in power. She did not want to side unequivocally with the people who were seeking a truly democratic government that would bring social rights to the dispossessed.

OK, but then how is the discussion going at the moment, what are the main points of conflict, of dispute with the Spanish right? After all, the left is in power in Spain now.

The left-wing government of the PSOE, PODEMOS and the United Left was the first in Spain since the Republic to approve a new Democratic Memory Law recently, which represents an important step forward in the fight to recover the truth, justice and reparation buried by Franco’s dictatorship. It is still not enough.

Spain’s amnesty law, passed during the transition from dictatorship to democracy, makes it impossible to try those involved in the coup and the subsequent post-war repression. The Right, for its part, with all the forces we have outlined above, has refused to condemn the coup and maintains the thesis that the putsch was a godsend for Spain.

And are left-wing parties carrying out commemorative activities from below?

Virtually all political options to the left of the PSOE, which has a social-democratic profile, are very much involved in the fight for democratic memory. A large number of organisations belonging to the Social Democrats also sympathise with and support these actions. The PSOE, trapped by its status as a ‘party of power’ and therefore aspiring to the right-wing mainstream nonetheless, is advancing in this area at a tortoise’s pace. It is being overtaken by the rest of the left because the PSOE is constantly afraid of the reaction of the right and the forces that support it.

What are the other initiatives taken by the victims of the fascist regime?

In addition to the marches that take place periodically, there are a growing number of projects that publicise specific tragedies, as in the case of Desbanda. After all, murders and mass repression of people who defended the Republic happened all over Spain.

But we also organise comprehensive analyses of the coup, the war and the repression that followed. Books, documentaries and films are being produced. A recent example is the film Las cartas olvidadas (The Forgotten Letters), written and directed by Amparo Climent, president of the Asociación Cultural Arte y Memoria, which in turn also organises the International Historical Memory Film Festival.

Are the children of fascist activists, soldiers, families and victims of the so-called Red Terror also organising?

There is no organisation of people who consider themselves victims of the “red terror”. There was no need for this before, because Franco’s dictatorship imposed, with blood and repression, its version of history. The traditional right, the Popular Party, descendant of the only party of the dictatorship, the National Movement, clung to the thesis we pointed out earlier, which was nothing other than reconciliation without memory, that is, without first explaining what happened in Spain. Tens of thousands of victims were condemned to oblivion. The Ciudadanos party is behaving in a similar way.

The emergence of the far-right, openly Francoist Vox party has changed the situation. VOX activists attack all democratic memory initiatives and propose parliamentary support for the People’s Party if it repeals or leaves in place the existing Memory Laws. They defend the Francoist version of the coup d’état and the war, and deny, as inventions of the ‘reds’, all the crimes of Francoism.

The aim of these parties is to maintain a historical narrative that favours the financial oligarchy and the apparatus of power in Spain. It is important to remember that their power came from the triumph of the coup d’état and the war.

If we examine the names of the most important people of the various right-wing parties in Spain, the main banks or the main industries, we will see that they are linked to the great fortunes, families or military that supported the coup and the dictatorship.

How does this heritage continue to divide society? Are there any public opinion polls on this subject?

There is a social division that is expressed very concretely in support for the monarchy or for the republic. Supporters of the monarchy tend to belong to right-wing parties, republics to left-wing parties. On 12 October 2020, a poll conducted by the Platform for Independent Media (PMI) showed that in a referendum vote, 40.9% of voters would support the republic as a system of state organisation and 34.9% would support the monarchy. On the question of whether a referendum should be held, 47.8 per cent were in favour, while 36.1 per cent did not think it was necessary and 16.1 per cent had no opinion. A year later, on 12 October 2021, a new poll put support for the Republic at 39.4 per cent, while 31 per cent supported the monarchy.

The government’s Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS), which periodically carries out systemic surveys, has not asked Spaniards about their opinion of the monarchy since April 2014. Since 1994, surveys have been conducted asking people to rate their trust in the Crown on a scale of 1 to 10, a score that fell to a low of 3.68 in 2013. Faced with such discredit for the monarchy in the following years, the questions were simply not asked anymore.

The current left-wing coalition government has taken a major step forward with the introduction of a new ‘Historical Memory Law’. What are your current demands regarding the place of the Civil War in current Spanish discourse and legislation?

The Remembrance Movement in Spain hopes that what we have defined as Truth, Justice and Reparation will become a reality.

Truth, because we want the story to be known as it was. It is now denied that La Desbandá took place at all. And if it had, it is claimed that there was no bombardment of fleeing civilians from land, sea and air. There are, however, preserved speeches by Franco’s supreme army commander in Andalusia, boasting that he had given the order to bomb the fleeing ‘red masses’. There are also military documents from the air force and cruisers, giving the days, times and number of bombs that were launched towards the fleeing population.

Justice, because Franco’s death sentences for the crime of defending the Republic are still in force today. The murderers are honoured by street names, squares and monuments.

Reparations, because thousands of people still lie in ditches and mass graves and the state must take it upon itself to exhume them and deliver their remains to their families. It must also revendicate the property that was seized, expropriated from republican families as punishment for their political affiliation, property that became the property of executioners and informers.

What can we expect for the future, what actions will you take?

The future will depend on when the left, the republican movement, achieves clear political hegemony. It will be necessary to defeat nascent fascism and proclaim the Third Federal Republic in Spain.

This sounds very radical. Is it really necessary to start a debate about the war and restore the truth about the events?

Unfortunately, yes. Only the political defeat of the Right in Spain and the subjugation of the forces that sustain it will one day make it possible to restore the truth about what happened in the Spanish Republic, about the coup d’état and the war that followed. In the meantime, we will continue to fight tirelessly.

Manuel García Morales was born on 13 May 1953 in a poor neighbourhood in Málaga (Andalusia). His father came from a family repressed by the Francoists; his grandfather (a communist) was arrested and executed without trial after the capture of Málaga in 1937. His mother, whose family was less affected by repression, was a socialist republican.

After studying electronics and working as an electrician, he became involved in underground political activity against Franco’s dictatorship in 1970, at the age of 17. From 72-76 he was imprisoned several times accused of illegal propaganda and subversive activities. In 1979 he was arrested for taking part in a factory occupation and in 1983 for an illegal demonstration in defence of feminist demands. From 1973 he was associated with the trade union Comisiones Obreras, then an illegal organisation, and various grassroots socialist groups.

Until his retirement in 2014, he was repeatedly elected as the workers’ representative of the Meliá Hoteles hotel chain, while also being a regional leader of the Confederación Sindical de CCOO and the Partido Comunista de España. He is currently politically active in the field of International Solidarity, being responsible for the Middle East zone of the International Commission of the Partido Comunista de España until July 2022, and a board member of the Asociación la Desbandá, which aims to work for Historical Memory in Spain.

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