Tag: Spanish Civil War (page 1 of 2)

September 22, 1956: First ship to repatriate Basque refugees from Soviet Union sets sail

On September 22, 1956 a ship carrying refugees from the Spanish Civil War, principally from the Basque Country, set sail from the port of Odessa in the then Soviet Union, bound for Valencia. Many of the refugees had spent nearly twenty years in exile, and most had left as children.

We have posted previously on the plight of Basque refugee children fleeing the effects of the bloody civil war in the 1930s: on the anniversary of the famous 1937 evacuation from Santurtzi, Bizkaia, on the Basque Children of ’37 UK association, and on the tireless work of individuals like Dame Elizabeth Leah Manning to ensure these children found sanctuary from the horrors of war. Today, however, we remember an equally significant date: that moment, twenty years later, when some of those children, now adults, were allowed to return to the Basque Country, despite the dictatorship in Spain.

While many of the other Basque children exiled in countries like the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland had been allowed to return through the 1940s, those that had been evacuated to Stalin’s Soviet Union were regarded with the utmost suspicion by the Franco regime. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 and the gradual reincorporation of Spain into the international political fold allowed for a slight relaxing of relations between the two countries. This led, in turn, to an agreement on the part of the Franco regime to allow the exiles back, although as noted it was nearly twenty years since many of them had fled.

Despite being reunited with their families, after up to twenty years in exile, readapting to life back in the Basque Country was by no means straightforward for the refugees. For many of the “Russians,” as they were called, life in the Franco regime was hard, and they even ran into hostility and suspicion both on the part of the public authorities and the general public. Some even went back to the Soviet Union, which had in their opinion treated them better.

This date, then, serves to reinforce the tremendous impact of war, violence, and displacement on modern and contemporary Basque society.

If you are interested in the broader impact of conflict on modern Basque history, check out War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott (description and free download here); Basque Nationalism and Political Violence by Cameron Watson; Our Wars: Short Fiction on Basque Conflicts, edited by Mikel Ayerne Sudupe; Empire & Terror: Nationalism/Postnationalism in the New Millennium, edited by Begoña Aretxaga, Dennis Dworkin, Joseba Gabilondo, and Joseba Zulaika (description and free download here); and States of Terror, by Begoña Aretxaga.

September 18, 1970: Political self-immolation by Joseba Elosegi

On September 18, 1970, the Basque nationalist activist Joseba Elosegi set fire to and threw himself in front of General Franco, the dictator of Spain, while he was attending an international pelota championship in Donostia-San Sebastián.

Joseba Elosegi (1915-1990).

Joseba Elosegi (1915-1990).

As a soldier in the Basque army in the civil war, he had witnessed the bombing of Durango on March 31, 1937, and was present in Gernika during its infamous bombardment on April 26 that same year. He was ultimately captured and sentenced to death but his was life was spared when he was exchanged for a pro-Franco prisoner being held by the pro-Republic forces. He subsequently went into exile in France, from where he took part in the anti-Franco resistance movement, as well as aiding the Allies in getting airmen whose planes had been shot down across the border from occupied France into neutral Spain. On July 18, 1946, he was involved in one of the most daring acts of civil disobedience against the Franco regime. That day marked the tenth anniversary of Franco’s military uprising and a group of activists hoisted the banned Basque flag, the ikurriña, atop the Buen Pastor Cathedral in Donostia-San Sebastián. He was detained by the police and served some jail time before returning to exile.

In September 1970, the fifty-four-year-old Elosegi carried out an act of self-immolation in protest at the horrors of the Franco regime.  In the words of Cameron J. Watson, in Basque Nationalism and Political Violence (pp. 161-62):

Elosegi, a witness to the destruction of Gernika, in an act of self-immolation,set his own body on fire and threw himself before the dictator, shouting “Gora Euskadi Askatuta!” [Long live the free Basque Country!] He survived, however, and later recalled that the incident represented the last desperate act of a former gudari [Basque soldier] who had obsessively remembered the scenes he saw in Gernika for over thirty years before feeling the compulsion to repeat in his protest the flames he had witnessed in the town that day. “Death does not frighten me,” he later wrote . . .  “it is an obligatory end. When one is born, the journey toward death has begun.” In throwing himself before Franco, he had “symbolically wanted to convey to him the fire of Gernika,” for its destruction, a Holocaust-like offering to the technological advances of Nazi Germany, represented for many Basques an attack on their very existence.

He almost died as a result of the act and spent several days in a critical condition. He survived, only to be condemned to seven years in prison, of which he served three. After Franco’s death, he served as an elected representative in the Spanish Senate for both the EAJ-PNV and later EA, two Basque nationalist parties, between 1979 and 1989. In June 1984, in one final act of civil disobedience, he removed physically a Basque flag from an exhibition in Madrid titled “Flags of the Republican side during the war of liberation,” and was spared legal action against him on account of his position in the Senate.

He died at the age of seventy-four in 1990.

August 11, 1936: Basque-language books burned in Tolosa by Franco’s troops

On August 11, 1936, in an early and telling act on the part of General Franco’s cultural strategy during the Civil War, rebel troops carried out a public mass book burning of Basque-language texts in the Old Square of Tolosa; the historically important Gipuzkoan town that had been one of the epicenters of the so-called Euskal Pizkundea, the Basque cultural renaissance based on a flourishing of artistic creation in Basque.

Book burning in Tolosa, August 11, 1936

Book burning in Tolosa, August 11, 1936

The rebel troops had recently occupied Tolosa in their drive westward across Gipuzkoa. Once entrenched in the town, they entered the printing press of Ixaka Lopez Mendizabal, a writer, editor, and printer at the heart of the aforementioned renaissance and removed all the books they could find in either Basque or concerning Basque culture. Repeating their search in the municipal and school libraries, they stacked their loot up in the Old Square before proceeding to burn the pile in a very public act of cultural negation.

In February 1937, Franco’s rebel government passed an official order to cleanse the Basque Country of all such “seditious” books.

April 9, 1914: Birth of Feminist Anarchist Militant “Kaxilda”

On April 9, 1914, Soledad Casilda Hernáez Vargas was born to a single mother in Zizurkil, Gipuzkoa. In the 1930s she became a well-known feminist political activist and anarchist militant in Gipuzkoa, taking an active part in fighting at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War as well as later in the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France.

Kasilda (1914-1992)

Subsequently known as Kasilda, Kaxilda, Kasi, or “la Miliciana,” she was raised in  Donostia-San Sebastián in a Bohemian family with strong connections to the anarchist movement. As a young woman in the early 1930s she caused a scandal by bathing nude on the Zurriola Beach in Donostia. Becoming an activist in the anarchist movement, she was arrested in 1934 for distributing propaganda and possessing explosives during the revolutionary strike of October that year.  She was, though, released in 1936 as part of a general amnesty conceded by the newly elected Popular Front coalition government in Madrid. On leaving prison prison, she met fellow Basque anarchist activist Felix Likiano (1909-1982), her partner for the rest of her life.

When the Civil War broke out in July 1936, she joined Likiano in the anarchist militia formed to defend Donostia against the attack of the rebel troops, seeing active service in the Battle of Irun (Aug. 27 – Sep. 5, 1936) and, later, after the fall of her home city, also as part of the Hilario-Zamora Column on the Aragon and Ebro Fronts in 1938. With the triumph of the rebels, however, she and Likiano fled to France, where they were subsequently arrested and sent to the Argelès-sur-Mer and Gurs concentration camps. Released in 1940, the couple then moved first to Baiona in Lapurdi, but ultimately settled in Bordeaux, where their home–nicknamed the “Basque Consulate”–became a well-known meeting place for exiled Spanish Republicans. With the Nazi occupation of France they collaborated actively with the French Resistance.

After a spell in Paris, they returned to the Basque Country, settling in Biarritz. She died in 1992 and on her gravestone one can read the inscription “Andra! Zu zera bukatzen ez den sua!” (Woman! You’re the fire that never goes out!).

March 5, 1937: Battle of Cape Matxitxako

On March 5, 1937, the Battle of Cape Matxitxako took place off Bermeo, Bizkaia, during the Spanish Civil War. It was a naval battle between the Spanish heavy cruiser Canarias in the service of Franco’s military rebels and four pro-Republic Basque armed trawlers escorting a convoy. The trawlers were protecting the transport ship Galdames, which was sailing to Bilbao with 173 passengers. They were confronted by the rebel cruiser Canarias off Cape Matxitxako.

Cape Matxitxako off the coast of Bizkaia. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 4, the four Basque trawlers–the BizcaiaGipuzkoaDonostia, and Nabarra–departed the port of Baiona in Lapurdi with the aim of escorting the Galdames, which besides passengers was also carrying mail, machinery, weapons, supplies, and funds. The first engagement between the two sides took place on March 5, some 20 miles north of Bilbao. The Canarias fired first, hitting the Gipuzkoa, which in turn retaliated. The other trawlers attempted to maneuver the Canarias closer to the shore, from where their ground support could more easily strike it. All the while, their aim was to keep the Canarias away from the Galdames by engaging directly with the rebel ship.  The Donostia withdrew after being hit, but the Nabarra continued to engage the Canarias directly. She was eventually hit and came to a halt; 20 men abandoned the sinking trawler, while another 29 were lost with the ship, including her captain, Enrique Moreno Plaza. Ultimately, the Galdames was hit by a salvo from Canarias, lost four passengers, and was captured by Franco’s cruiser. The 20 men who abandoned the ship were rescued and taken aboard the Canarias.

Monument to the fallen Basque sailors at the Battle of Cape Matxitxako. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present (pp. 262-63), Cameron Watson discusses how Anglo-Irish poet C. Day Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis) immortalized the event in “The Nabara” (1938):

Day-Lewis never visited the Basque Country, but saw the struggle of many Basques against the military uprising of Francisco Franco as a universal theme. His epic prose poem “The Nabara,” published in 1938, pays homage to what he considered to be the indomitable spirit of the Basque people, suggested by an event that took place in 1937 during the Civil War, when five modestly armed Basque trawlers engaged in a hopeless naval battle with a Spanish rebel cruiser in the waters of Bilbo, in a bold attempt to break a Spanish blockade of the Basque city that was starving Bilbo’s inhabitants. The struggle of the ill-equipped fishing boats lasted longer than might have been expected, ending only when the last of their number, the Nabarra (Nafarroan), was finally sunk by superior forces, losing thirty-eight members of its original fifty-two-man crew. Day Lewis wrote: “Freedom is more than just a word, more than the base coinage of Statesmen, the tyrant’s dishonoured cheque, or the dreamer’s inflated currency. She is mortal, we know, and made in the image of simple men who have no taste for carnage but sooner kill and are killed than see that image betrayed … a pacific people, slow to feel ambition, loving their laws and their independence–men of the Basque Country.”

You can download Modern Basque History for free here.

 

 

Dr. Xabier Irujo presents at the 52. Durangoko Azoka

While wrapping up my fieldwork after spending a year here in the Basque Country, I took a day to travel from Bilbao to Durango to see the famous Durango Book Fair. Aside from getting to travel with a friend to this happening scene, with numerous publishers, book stores, and new media, I was able to see a familiar face. Professor Xabier Irujo was presenting his book titled “The Verdad Alternativa“, which discusses the lies and propaganda regarding the catastrophic effects of the bombing of Gernika.  The session was well attended with standing room only, with several from the audience providing follow-up questions.

Congratulations Professor Irujo!  Look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Center for Basque Studies in January!

 

October 7, 1936: First Basque Government Formed

The first Basque Government was created on October 7, 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The government was led by Jose Antonio Agirre and was based in Bilbao’s emblematic Hotel Carlton.

Agirre and other government members address crowd from balcony of Hotel Carlton

Given that holding elections was impossible on account of the outbreak of the civil war in July 1936, a transitional decree was approved whereby the councilmen of municipalities in territory not occupied by the military rebels would elect the first lehendakari or Basque president. They duly elected Jose Antonio Agirre unanimously at a meeting in the historic assembly hall in Gernika. Agirre subsequently formed the first Basque government from among his own Basque Nationalist Party as well as the other parties that formed part of the Popular Front, the democratically elected coalition governing the Second Spanish Republic that Franco’s military uprising was seeking to overthrow.

The importance of Agirre and the first Basque government were explored at a major international conference whose results were published in The International Legacy of the Lehendakari Jose A. Agirre’s Government, edited by Xabier Irujo and Mari Jose Olaziregi.

 

September 13, 1936: Fall of Donostia-San Sebastián in Spanish Civil War

On September 13, 1936, five columns of Navarrese troops marched into Donostia-San Sebastián, meeting with no resistance, to take the city in the name of the military rebels who had risen up two months earlier against the democratically elected government of the Second Spanish Republic.

Map showing the frontline in Gipuzkoa until October 1936 in one-week intervals, as of late evening every Sunday, by Dd1495, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

That previous July, the garrison of Spanish troops stationed in Donostia had actually joined in the military uprising but it was put down by socialist and anarchist militiamen loyal to the republic. In August, however, Navarrese troops (the requetés or Carlist militias who sided with the military rebels during the war), aided by some Gipuzkoan Carlists, began a campaign to seal off the border at Irun, thereby cutting off a potential arms supply from France for the pro-Republic forces. After laying siege to the town, and with aerial support, the rebels took Irun on September 5,  effectively paving the way to march on toward Donostia. With the fall of Irun, a westward drift of refugees (those that did not manage to cross the border into Iparralde) began that would define much of the civilian experience of the civil war in the Basque Country.

Rebel troops entering Donostia

Having suffered bombardment from sea, and with rebel troops advancing into the city from both the east and inland Gipuzkoa, Donostia ultimately fell without resistance.

Be sure to check out War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, a key work that among other themes examines the effects of war on ordinary people in the Basque Country. This book is available free to download here.

The Center has also recently published David Lyon’s Bitter Justice, an important study based on a wealth of primary material that examines the fate of Basque prisoners during the Spanish Civil War.

 

Map of civil war graves updated in Navarre

Historical memory–the recovering of previously forgotten (consciously or otherwise) events from the past–is a prevailing topic in contemporary Basque and Spanish society, especially in regard to the civil war of 1936-1939, which left a legacy of actively forgetting about crimes perpetrated against the “losers” of that war.

Excavation of common grave site in Dicastillo (Deikaztelu), Navarre

These reprisals were especially brutal in Navarre, and in an effort to regain this memory, the Foral Government of Navarre commissioned a firm to draw up a map of all know common graves (sites in which people killed during the civil war were unceremoniously buried, in many cases without their relatives’ knowledge). The discovery of these sites, and the closure such investigations brings to family members, is an important feature of the emphasis on regaining historical memory. An up-to-date map has just been released showing the sites of various common graves and classified according to those that have been excavated, those that have been initially explored, those that are yet to be excavated, and other potential sites of interest.

The updated map contains information on 22 newly discovered common graves, more information on 38 already studied sites, data on 21 newly identified victims of the Francoist repression, and information on the location of a further 49 bodies.

Check out the map of these sites here.

For more information on this initiative on the part of the Foral Government of Navarre (in Spanish) click here.

War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, examines the wider impact on society of the momentous events that took place within such a short space of time in and around the Basque Country in the 1930s and 1940s. This work seeks to fully explore the effect of war and displacement on ordinary people.

Refugees Welcome, 1937

Today we are delighted to include a guest post by Iñaki Azkarraga, a friend of the Center and keen observer of all things Bilbao. Thanks to contributors like Azkarraga and feedback from our readers, we hope to share the many stories and rich history of the Basques around the world. Eskerrik asko Iñaki!

In these times of sad wartime anniversaries, we come across some public gardens in Bilbao dedicated, precisely, to the memory of those people who reflect the best in humanity at the bloodiest of times. I am referring to Dame Elizabeth Leah Manning (1886-1977), an educationalist and sometime member of the British Parliament.

Eighty years ago, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Bilbao was being bombed and on the point of being occupied by fascist troops. The Basque government appealed for international help in evacuating the refugees accumulating in growing numbers the city. Numerous negotiations were successful and senior citizens, women, and children began to be evacuated by sea to France, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Mexico, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Some of these states had encouraged a policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, abandoning to fate a legitimate democratically-elected government. The British government position was paradigmatic in this regard. However, it was British public opinion, horrified at the news breaking about the bombing of civilians, which forced the government to take in Basque refugees.

This is the context in which the intrepid figure of Leah Manning emerged, a woman who stood up to both the British government and her own Labour Party–the cause of the “pro-Communist and anti-Catholic” Spanish Republic was viewed with some suspicion in many quarters in the UK–and became actively involved in the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief,  and presided over by another prominent woman, the conservative Katherine Marjory Stewart-Murray, Lady Atholl. A key factor in Leah Manning’s involvement was the fact that she had visited Gernika two days after it had been bombed in April 1937. This influenced her decision, definitively, to get involved in the evacuation of Basque children to her homeland, jointly with the Basque government’s Department for Social Assistance.

The task was by no means easy. The British government, with the exception of providing an armed escort in international waters for the humanitarian convoys leaving Bizkaia after March 1937, consistently refused to provide any public funding to help settle and support these refugees, entrusting all this to private initiatives. In order to do this, the Basque Children’s Committee was created with the aim of coordinating resources and raising funds through charity collections, donations by well-known people, and so on. Manning and others like her carried out a mammoth task. In the end, a camp was organized in Stoneham, Southampton, to receive 4,000 people. Thus, on May 20, 1937, once the corresponding official British government permission had been granted in extremis, the Habana ocean liner could set sail from the port of Santurtzi destined for the UK, with 3,861 children aboard, accompanied by medical, auxiliary, and teaching staff. This was one of the largest human convoys organized in one go at that time.

Once on land and after several days in Stoneham, the Basque children were sent off to different parts of the UK, in dozens of charitable groups and institutions that would look after them and monitor their health.

Barely a month later, on June 19, Bilbao fell into the hands of Franco’s army and from 1938 on, little by little, most of these Basque children gradually returned home. However, many also stayed on in the UK for the rest of their lives, or only returned as adults, like Raimundo Perez Lezama, who began his professional soccer career at Southampton and was later considered one of the best ever goalkeepers for Bilbao’s emblematic team, Athletic Club.

In sum, this is a story of solidarity and social mobilization during times of war.  Like today, there were refugees fleeing a conflict, but in the face of little action on the part of governments, they found a fitting response on the part of civil society and in the necessary leadership that, through people like Leah Manning, was capable of raising the humanitarian cause over any other consideration. I hope these words serve as a suitable tribute to this courageous person.

http://www.basquechildren.org/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leah_Manning

http://blogs.deia.com/historiasdelosvascos/2012/05/11/la-odisea-de-los-ninos-vascos-en-inglaterra/#more-102

https://errepublikaplaza.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/los-ninos-de-la-guerra-las-evacuaciones-infantiles-de-1937/

http://www.elcorreo.com/alava/sociedad/201705/07/ocho-dias-para-acoger-20170505173326.html

 

 

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