Tim Abrahams

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Written in Blood

The Herald Magazine April 2008

You can just make out the tall, red column. Amid the metallic blossom of cranes that have sprung up along Barcelona's Mediterranean shore stands a memorial. Today it is belittled by the jungle of higher structures that are building Barcelona's bold, bright future, but it commemorates a period of the city's recent past. Between 1939 to 1952, 1,704 people were shot here by General Franco.

I worked as slave labour. We worked our way across the whole of Spain from the Basque country in the north, to Cadiz in the south
Cassandra Mestre remembers the day when her brother was shot on this spot on February 17, 1949. A small, modest 78-year-old, she reveals an impenetrable resilience as she peels back the years. When Franco began his aerial bombardment of the city, her father was in hiding. He had been involved in the movement to create co-operative farms and factories. His card, as they say, was marked.

At 14, Cassandra fled to France with her mother in pursuit of their brother who had volunteered for the army at 15. They didn't find him and their father was captured as he came to meet them in France. He was sentenced to death for his left-wing loyalties. ''My father was held with all the other condemned men in an underground dungeon,'' she says. ''The guards would wake them up and read out a list of names as if they were about to be shot. Some of them would be executed. Some of them wouldn't. They played this game with him for six months.''

Her father's sentence was eventually commuted when a Francist, former-colleague intervened. Cassandra's brother wasn't so lucky. Like many Catalans, he fought with the French Resistance against the collaborationist government throughout the war, but when he continued his subterfuge against the Spanish state there was no support from the Allies. Numen Mestre was caught in 1949. He was 26, with a decade of combat experience already behind him. ''My father went to see the man who had saved his life and asked him, 'Can you help my son as you helped me?' and he was told, 'No. I did it for you, but I won't do it for him. He came into the country to kill Francists like me.' Which I suppose is true. So they shot my brother.''

It isn't just the memorial at Diagonal Mar which will immortalise the sacrifice her brother and others made to try and defeat Fascism. Some 500 miles away across the barren plain of northern Spain is a small room, filled with filing cabinets and decorated solely with a reproduction of the most famous image of the Spanish Civil War - Picasso's Guernica. Inside the cabinets are three million brown index cards; one of which has the name Numen Mestre on it. Each name is followed by a simple description. ''Antonio San Jose. A sergeant in the air force,'' reads one, randomly selected. ''On July
19 he enrolled in the 5th Regiment, later becoming part of the brigade led by the general known as El Campesino, where he distinguished himself in morale and combat. In June 1937, he became a pilot at 17 years of age and was known as the Youngest Pilot of the Glorious.''

There is no indication as to what eventually happened to Antonio. He may have been shot or tortured. He may be retired somewhere, having lived a relatively normal life, except for those days in his youth when he fought in a war which has fascinated the world ever since. These are the Salamanca Blood Papers. Together with the documents used as a source of information, they are the physical remains of the repression meted out to his opponents by General Franco.

Collectively they are officially called the Archive of the Civil War, created when Franco organised an unprecedented system of information-gathering about his political opponents. His wily minister of the interior, Serrano Suner, sent his police force, the Guardia Civil, into public buildings, the offices of trade unions and private homes to seize papers whenever the Fascist army took a town. In Salamanca, they then drew up a blacklist of ''anti-Spanish elements'', before returning to the centres of opposition and executing, imprisoning or conscripting individuals into the army or forced work battalions.

For more than 60 years these cards have sat in this beautiful eighteenth-century building. ''Madrid was Republican,'' explains archive director Miguel Jaramillo, ''and Salamanca represented a perfect image of Spanish traditions. Franco wanted to regain the imperial past and all the images of it were here; the rule of the Catholic kings, the tradition of the university and the spirituality of the great thinkers who have sat there.''

Salamanca is still a beautiful city. As charming a university town as Cambridge with more impressive buildings and fewer students. In 1254, Pope Alexander IV called the University of Salamanca ''one of the four leading lights of the world'', but the attack on free thought during the Inquisition saw its prestige decline and the city never fully recovered its standing. This year, though, it is the European City of Culture and the Salamantines see the archive as part of their cultural wealth.

To the Catalans, however, the papers represent war booty stolen by the Spanish state. A campaign led by Catalan nationalists is calling for the documents relating to Catalan history to be returned. They claim them not just by right of practical necessity and symbolism, but because the government of Madrid first promised their return in 1979, even before they granted Catalonia autonomy.

Director of the Catalonian National Archive, Josep Maria Sans i Trave, supports their goal. ''That this documentation remains sequestered in Salamanca without having been returned to its legitimate owners means the Civil War is not yet over,'' he says. Paul Preston, a British historical expert on the Spanish Civil War, concurs. ''The failure of the Salamanca archive to return this documentation to its rightful owners is scandalous. The argument that it now constitutes a valuable archive seems to me a spurious one.''

Cassandra Mestre gives a derisive snort when asked what she thinks should happen to the papers. ''They should be here in Catalonia, of course.'' Unlike historians, however, she wants them returned because they represent the system that killed her brother and subjected her father to torment. Perhaps, too, it's caused by a resentment towards the Spain that invaded Barcelona, a Spain that she believes still lives on.

In one of the filing cabinets lies a card with the name Josep Sanjoan Guell on it. He has never seen it. Sitting in the home of his historian friend Antoni Gavalda, he remembers the day when that same friend told him that his trade union activity had been immortalised in the archive. ''The most important trade union in our area was the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, but they were in the hands of the anarchists. Some of my fellow iron workers didn't agree with their politics so we opened a branch of Union General de Trabajadors. It was a union formed in Barcelona in 1888, but I was the founder of the branch in Valls in 1937,'' he says with no small amount of pride.

Sitting in Gavalda's home, in the tranquil town of Valls, he remembers the time he travelled the 500 miles west to see the archive. ''Fifteen years ago when Tony first told me that he had seen my papers when he was writing his thesis I was curious. I said to my wife that we should go to Salamanca to see my papers and see my name.''I went to the main entrance. At first I admired this strange building, then I thought of those sad days. But I was satisfied. I didn't feel the need to go in.''

This is, perhaps, just as well because only historians and journalists are allowed into the archive. Smiling frequently, Guell doesn't boil with the same anger as those Catalans who so vociferously demand the return of the papers, yet were too young to have fought in the war. ''I don't complain that the Spanish put me in a concentration camp or made me work in the forced labour battalions. That was the price of our defeat. Now, I am proud that my name appears in the archive. It is the curriculum vitae of a good socialist,'' he says with a glint in his eye.

When Franco's slow progress across Spain took him to the gates of Catalonia, Guell saw fighting as the logical continuation of his union activity. Then, as he was moving from one battlefront to another, his truck was bombed and he was injured. ''I was lucky, however, because I was put in a military hospital in Barcelona. From there I could go into exile in France when I recovered. I remember the exact day I went into exile. It was February 5, 1939 - my nineteenth birthday.''

Nearly half a million Spaniards crossed the border into France, only to suffer in concentration camps on the beaches of Argeles. Guell preferred to return to Spain. It was then that Franco's police caught up with him. He was arrested and put in the forced work battalion. ''I worked as slave labour. We worked our way across the whole of Spain. From the Basque country in the north, to Cadiz in the south, building roads, bunkers and bridges, with disgusting food and terrible conditions. It took me three years.''

After two years in the Francist army in conditions that were just as bad, Guell returned home to continue his union activity in secrecy. His presence in the archive was only revealed when Gavalda found his name while writing his university thesis on a famous localanarchist. Gavalda remembers the shock of his first experience of looking through the documents. ''The organisation of the archive is terrible. There are so many documents that are not in order. I asked for a file on the city of Tarragona, but I found papers from Galicia and other parts of Spain in it.''

Another historian shows us copies of papers that originated in Mexico in a file supposedly from Barcelona. 'About 25 per cent of this documentation is in Catalan,' continues Gavalda. 'We only want what was stolen from us. It costs a lot of money for a local historian like me to go to Salamanca to research information about events that occurred in the very town I live in.' Guell is glad that he paid the price, however. Franco's regime must have been a long winter for the Republicans who fought him, particularly the Catalans who were forbidden from speaking their own language during his regime. They had waited with hope when the Second World War finished to see if Franco would be removed by the Allies, along with Hitler and Mussolini, only to be disappointed.

They were confounded further when Spain was admitted to the United Nations in 1955 and when President Eisenhower visited Madrid in 1959 to grant the next instalment of aid which eventually totalled $2bn. Up until the last year of his life, Franco cowed the opposition by executing around 200,000 people, on top of those who had died in the Civil War, many of them for less than Guell's union activity.

'The work that Toni did is very important,' says Guell. ''Through his study he can tell many people what he knows about Valls. On a personal level, I am very grateful to Tony for his work. I have learned things about Valls during the Civil War that I never knew, even though I was alive at the time. More importantly, though, people who want to learn about what happened here - where we stood and why we fought - can read Tony's work.'' It is no mistake that Catalans are calling for the papers' return. Xavier Farre, a Catalan historian, describes the Spanish Civil War, as the sequel to the War of the Reapers which began in 1640 (where Catalonia lost land which is now part of the French state) and the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 (where the remainder of Catalonia was incorporated more fully into the Spanish state).

'When the French monarchy took our papers in the seventeenth century they reallocated them to various archives, some to the new departments created by the French, some to the treasury, some to the national archives. They were assimilated. As a consequence the memories of the Catalans in southern France have successfully been separated from the real past. 'The Spanish state did something different, however. They retained the papers taken from us as a separate entity, simply because they didn't realise how important they were. If the Spanish Guardia Civil had done their job properly, we would have no opportunity to regain our memory.'

Surely though, with the advent of microfilm, the physical papers are no longer as vital? Heribert Barrera disagrees. He fought Francist forces during the Civil War and organised Catalan resistance in the post-war years. Now 85, he is seen as the 'last link' by Catalan Nationalists. He says that is simply because he was one of the few who survived. He stood as a deputy of the Catalan Parliament when it was restored in 1980, as a member of the Esquerra Republicana, a Catalan nationalist party, and was elected as president.

His details, and those of his father who was a minister in the last Republican government before Franco's coup d'etat, sit on a card somewhere in one of those filing cabinets. 'Personally I think their importance is their symbolism,' he says. 'If the Salamanca Papers were returned to us, it would be a recognition of our distinct personality as Catalans. It's not the material value of the papers, it's what they mean in the mind of the
Catalan people.'

The Catalan people, however, have been far more reticent about expressing their mind, compared to the vociferous Salamantines. In Barcelona, not just the capital of Catalonia but one of the major commercial and cultural centres of Europe, the younger generation seems more satisfied with the status quo. Part of the nationalists' urgent need for these documents comes from a concern over this passive response. The constitutional arrangement, which was one of the most obvious models for Scottish devolution, fixes Catalonia as a state within a state and for the large part young Catalans seem comfortable with it.

Only 40 per cent of the population of Catalonia speak Catalan as their first language, however, and the older generation fears for the future. Barrera explains: 'The only way that we can guarantee that the Catalan nation stays and survives is through independence. If not, we will slowly disappear because in Catalonia we have a big problem, which is not the same as Scotland, for example. We are being minoritised in our own country because most of the population is not of Catalan origin. They are from Andalucia and the rest of Spain or they are immigrants from South America and Africa who are increasing the Spanish-speaking portion of our society. If we had independence, we could control language. If you look at France, they have a large number of immigrants from Africa but all of them speak French. All of the immigrants who come to Barcelona speak Spanish not Catalan.'

Of course, it is a generalisation to say that a younger generation is more comfortable with Catalonia's bilingual status and the pros and cons of globalisation while the older wants the Catalan nation guaranteed. There are many young Catalans who know from their parents that the language they now speak freely was once illegal. Whatever the age, however, it's difficult not to feel sympathy with anyone who expresses that they would like to see the papers returned, given the Spanish state's reluctance to organise the papers better.

A special board is currently contemplating whether to expand the archive to make it a more complete record of the era rather than leaving it simply as the remains of a system of repression or to return it. As an outsider, it is hard to see why the papers should not be returned to Catalonia. The cards, on the other hand, listing the deeds of each enemy of Franco and which were written in Spain, could arguably stay were they are, with an important qualification.

If the Salamantines do not want to lose them, they should use them. The fact that a foreign journalist was permitted to wander among these simple testimonies, all the more powerful for having been written by a totalitarian regime, while those whose lives are actually detailed there are not permitted to do so is nonsensical. Perhaps, though, the memories such an exhibition would rekindle are more than Spain, despite its new prosperity, could bear.