SPAIN ACROSS THE YEARS. PART 1: Sanguinary Civil War, Ferocious Fascism, and the Dawning of a Better Life

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The siege of Madrid by the Franco-led Nationalist soldiers in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War,
left, and the Spanish Constitution of 1978
that restored democracy after the
interminable years of the notorious Franco regime


by Suzan  Hagstrom

When an international student who had lived in my home urged me to attend her wedding in Seville last year, I was excited to join the festivities. The invitation presented a great opportunity to revisit a country that has undergone transformational change. Curious, I knew the journey would be nothing less than epic because of the distance of time.

Franco’s Nationalist troops, left, march with Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion, right, during a victory parade in northwestern Spain’s Leon city on 22 May 1939, following the end of the Civil War on 1 April 1939. The Condor Legion bombed civilians as a war strategy.

I last set foot in Spain in 1974 and 1975 during the final years of fascism and the Franco dictatorship. I studied at the Complutense University of Madrid thanks to the University of California Berkeley’s Education Abroad Program.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who had come to power in 1939 with the help of Nazi Germany, outlived his fellow fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini by 30 years. Also known as El Caudillo, the warlord or strongman, Franco nearly died before I arrived in Madrid in the summer of 1974. He died for real shortly after I resumed studies at Berkeley in the fall of 1975.

Visit and revisit: old memories and new discoveries

The author at departure for Spain in 1974

Returning to Spain 47 years later became a personal experience in time travel, not only hurtling me between past and present but also prompting me to contemplate the future of democracy. Braced to observe and experience big changes in attitude, lifestyle, social mores and art, I was caught off guard by political tensions underlying Spain’s vibrant democracy.

In a Madrid park in 1975: “Spaniards are reserved when not downright guarded and kept to themselves.”

As I rode the bus from the airport to Madrid’s center – the quickest, cheapest and most scenic option, by the way – I was struck by the friendliness and helpfulness of the passengers, a mix of locals and visitors. That contrasted with my past experience.

Like other Europeans, Spaniards are more reserved than Americans; but decades ago, many Spaniards were downright guarded and kept to themselves. I rarely heard English, much less Mandarin Chinese, German, Russian and the Tower of Babel surrounding me on the bus.

Gay Pride parade in Madrid and celebration of Same-Sex Marriage law

Riding through Chueca, Madrid’s gay neighborhood, reminded me of the news I had read that post-Franco Spain became one of the first European nations to allow same-sex marriage. The approval of Spain’s new Constitution in plenary sessions of the Congress of Deputies and the Senate on October 31, 1978 facilitated other progressive reforms, including freedom of religion and separation of church and state (“No religion shall have a state character”).

A flowering of artistic expression, especially in filmmaking, accompanied the removal of governmental restrictions — referred to by some as the descorchando or uncorking. At the same time, Spain’s economy and standard of living improved dramatically.

In the mid-1970s my Spanish household allowed only two showers a week, and bathing was a point of negotiation in the modest pensiones, hostels and guest houses I lodged in when I traveled regionally. Enjoying Spain as a tourist during my second visit made me reflect on my having lived under an authoritarian government. (Historians and political scientists are largely agreed that toward the end of the Franco era, the regime eased off from highly repressive dictatorship into authoritarianism.)

Encounter with an international city

Gran Via today: “Madrid is no longer the insular capital of yesteryears. It has become a truly international city.”

As I stepped off the bus at Plaza de Cibeles and began walking toward the Gran Via and La Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid, I noticed the streets were packed with people from around the world. In the ensuing days, wherever I was — be it in the street, a shop, a café, or a museum — I found myself speaking Spanish with Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Chileans, Ecuadorians as well as with Spaniards. And English has become practically the second language down Gran Via! No longer insular, Madrid is very much an international city.

There were few tourists during the years of fascism, even in its final years. As an extranjera or foreigner residing in Spain, I was regarded as though I were from another planet. The only Asians I saw were a family operating a Chinese restaurant near the Puerta del Sol. Now there are all kinds of Asians, from Japan, Taiwan, the Republic of South Korea, China. . . Some are tourists. Others are students like I had been.

The day I arrived I visited the apartment building where I once lived – only two Metro stops from Madrid’s center. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. My luck couldn’t have been better.

Heraldo de Madrid headlines the republicans’ landslide victory against the monarchists in the municipal elections held across Spain on 14 April 1931. It was a “plebiscite” on a failed monarchy. Whereupon, King Alfonso XIII fled the country and the Second Republic was proclaimed.

A man emerging from the building – I learned quite soon that he was called Francisco Coello – listened to my story that I had lived there 47 years ago. On looking at the snapshot of the Spanish couple with whom I had lived, Coello recognized Amparin, my Spanish host mother. He knew Amparin and Amparin’s nieces who had also been living in the building.

Coello wanted to hear about Pedro, my Spanish host father, who had found refuge in Spain after fleeing his homeland of Russia where the Communists had taken control. A mercenary soldier, Pedro had fought with Franco to overthrow the Second Spanish Republic (1931 – 1939), a parliamentary republic with semi-presidential system, and force a fascist regime upon the nation.

Our animated chatter revealed we had more in common. Coello had also studied at the Complutense University. We agreed to meet for coffee at a later date — after the wedding I would attend in Seville. I felt as though I was making a new friend on my very first day in Madrid.

Striking up a conversation, let alone making friends, was not easy decades ago. That caused me to ponder how fascism’s insistence on conformity stifles spontaneity, communication, creativity, diversity.

Living under the same roof with fascists
In my youth, I didn’t think deeply about living in a household of fascists, in a city crawling with police armed with rifles. Back then, I was enmeshed in daily routines of writing essays, preparing for exams, attending classes and my ultimate goal of learning to speak Spanish. Yes, I am a nerd — so much so I refused to converse in English even with my American classmates.

Las Meninas by Velasquez, a Prado Museum crown jewel

My professors delivered lessons with such passion, to this day I remember lines of various poems and the use of light and symbolism in religious art. I commuted to the Prado Museum twice a week to study in person the masterpieces of Velasquez, El Greco, Goya, Rafael, Ribera, Murillo, Zurbaran, Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van der Weyden.

Returning nearly 50 years later was like reconnecting with old friends. I literally saw these same paintings in a different light because the Prado has been beautifully renovated to better showcase art.

While studying the old masters in 1974 and 1975, I was deprived of new masters. Under Franco’s dictatorship, Madrid lacked a dynamic art scene.

The olive tree in Alfacar, Granada beside which Garcia Lorca, inset, was assassinated on 19 August 1936 for his political beliefs and sexual orientation

When the fascists overthrew the democratic government in 1939, many writers, musicians, philosophers and painters fled Spain. Those who stayed were imprisoned and/or executed, most notably poet Federico Garcia Lorca, considered “undesirable” for his leftist politics expressed in theater and for his sexual orientation. Although Pablo Picasso took up residence in France long before the Civil War, he kept his vow to never return to Spain while it remained a fascist country and Franco was alive.


For Part 2, click here.

Hagstrom is a journalist and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California Berkeley. She is the author of  Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik, a World War II history text documenting the survival of five siblings in Nazi Germany’s death camps.

> Featured image (Siege of Madrid/Concern Illustrated Daily Courier – Illustration Archive. Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cytrowe, Poland, PD via Wikimedia Commons, frame supplied. Spanish Constitution/Cortes Copnsituyentes, PD via Wikimedia Commons) 
> Condor Legion and Nationalist troops in victory parade/Author unknown. Source: United States  Holocaust Memorial Museum, PD via Wikimedia Commons
> Suzan Hagstrom, 1974/Suzan Hagstrom
> Spaniards in a park/LBM1948, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
> Gay Pride parade and celebration of Same-Sex Marriage law in 2005. Original uploader: Raystorm.  Source: CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
> Gran Via today/©Jack Wright. All rights reserved
> Heraldo de Madrid/Heraldo de Madrid, PD via Wikimedia Commons 
> Las Meninas, PD via Wikimedia Commons. Source: Galeria Online, Museo del Prado 
> Olive tree/Graham Beards, CC BY-SA3.0. Garcia Lorca framed inset/Anonymous author. Source: Museo  Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Both via Wikimedia Commons.