Category Archives: Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

Red Devils: Republican Women Under Franco

A friend recently asked me about the situation of women sympathetic to the Republic, who, after February 1939, were condemned to endure the harshness of the Franco regime. The case of the men is well documented. Many of those who didn’t make it to Latin America, the USSR or Britain were sent by the Vichy government to Nazi concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen. Other ex-combatants were persuaded to accept a supposed offer of pardon from Franco and, on arrival in Spain, summarily tried and executed, or condemned to work as slave labour for the Franco government, the Catholic Church and private enterprise.

However the situation of Republican women was markedly different. While men avoided reprisal by fleeing to the mountains, most women were forced to remain in their homes where they had to care for children and dependents. So they were in a far more vulnerable situation.

Historian Loida Díaz Jiménez, on the website CuartoPoder, states that “women during the Second Republic found themselves identified with a pattern of behaviour that enabled activity, decision-making, the active and necessary participation required of them—whether as mothers, or as militia when war broke out— in a profoundly innovative way.”

Women from Oropesa, Toledo, their heads shaved for belonging to Republican families. (

Women from Oropesa, Toledo, their heads shaved for belonging to Republican families. (

The conservative and fascist forces behind the coup saw this as a “monstrous deformity” which the Republic had wrought in morality. The fascist mentality viewed the humanitarian ideals flourishing under the Republic as a malaise or cancer to be surgically removed from Spain’s ailing corpse. Women, seen as embodying the morality of the time—as many contemporary posters illustrate in which they represent the ideals of justice, peace or patriotism—became the target of a zealous crusade in moral reform.

Contemporary poster for the UGT union: "She is alert against fascism"

Contemporary poster for the UGT union: “She is alert against fascism”

As the “liberation” of villages and towns by the Francoist army progressed, exemplary punishments were meted out. Paul Preston, in The Spanish Holocaust (Harper Press, 2012), emphasises the high numbers of men suspected of Republican sympathies who were tortured then executed. It was a campaign carried out with “gratuitous cruelty”.

But the punitive measures against Republican women tended to focus on scenes of public humiliation, rape, sexual abuse and the permanent marking of women’s bodies. A common practice was to shave the victim’s head, force her to ingest castor oil to produce constant diarrhoea and then parade her around the main streets of her village or town in a macabre spectacle. “Red” women were portrayed as “red demons”.

After the war, according to Díaz Jiménez, “rape and sexual abuse became commonplace in police stations, civil guard barracks and prisons in an attempt to objectify and dehumanise those whom the victors considered the root of Republican wickedness”. In the early post-war years, thousands of women were subjected to cruel physical and psychological abuse.

However, cases of Republican women being shot and buried in shallow graves, similar to their male counterparts, also occurred. These include cases of pregnant women.

The practice of separating children from their “red” mothers was common. The historian José Pizarro documents the situation of María and her daughter Rosario, along with seventy-three others, who were tried for being members of the anarchist CNT union and the leftist Frente Popular government of Seville. They were given a summary trial and convicted in June 1938 to twelve years of hard labour. Twenty-year-old Rosario died of tuberculosis in prison in 1941.

María remained a prisoner while her other children were separated and sent to different provincial orphanages. The family was able to reunite in the early forties, but María, weakened from the poor health conditions hunger and overcrowding that were standard in Francoist prisons, died in Cádiz in 1944, aged just fifty-five.

As Silenciadas, a documentary by Pablo Ces

As Silenciadas, a documentary by Pablo Ces

Another interesting source is As Silenciadas, a 2011 documentary by Pablo Ces about the struggle of women in Galicia against the violence and repression of the Franco dictatorship following the war.

So the situation of women was far from easy. Throughout the forties and fifties, the Franco regime promoted an image of the Spanish woman based on Andalucian cultural stereotypes, a figure who was passionate yet demure and home-loving—a strong mother though one who bowed to her husband and authority in all things. And it is an image of Spain that has endured internationally, in detriment of a richer, more complex understanding of Spain’s many varied cultures.

The Zeitgeist of Barcelona

Reviewer Francis Barret has awarded four out of five stars to the novel Celia’s Room in a recent Goodreads review. I reprint it below in its entirety.

Nothing is quite as it seems. This book rejoices in ambiguity and ambivalence, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of Barcelona in the period when the optimism and openness precipitated by the restoration of democracy in Spain was fading as the ETA terrorist campaign continued to take lives, political corruption was exposed by the uncensored media, and the city began to undergo massive redevelopment for the Olympic Games of 1992.

Set mainly in the medieval Ciutat Vella (Old City), occasionally moving out to Camp Nou and the leafier uptown districts, the story unfolds through events narrated by two young men with very different backgrounds, perspectives and prospects. Both are engulfed by a nocturnal social milieu that will be immediately recognisable to anyone who experienced the last days of the notorious Barrio Chino before swathes of it were demolished to make way for the antiseptic Rambla del Raval.

Eduardo, a diplomat’s son used to a cosmopolitan life of privilege but traumatised by violent loss, is simultaneously dismissive of and drawn to tawdry “lowlife” decadence, distracting him from his career path. Joaquim, escaping a stultifying rural Catalan background and intent on becoming an artist, is easily entranced by flamboyance, and soon exploited to paint and decorate the interior of an aristocratic but dilapidated old mansion inhabited by a colourful cast of exotic characters with shady sources of income. Of these, the most enigmatic is Celia, a beautiful outsider who remains out of focus until the climax.

While most of the protagonists are recognisable Barcelona “types”, their personalities are not so much stereotypical as archetypal, rendered believable by ordinary human frailties. This is particularly true of Celia, whose mystique is heightened by infrequent but powerful utterances.

The narrators’ depictions of alcohol-driven, drug-fuelled bohemian nights of poetry and song, revolving between bars, after-hours dives and shared flats in the Gothic Quarter, contrast with their personal moments of unease and self-doubt. Misunderstandings amongst the revellers induce mistrust, jealousy, anger and shame. The inaugural house party held in the mansion to celebrate the pagan Vispera de Sant Joan (Midsummer’s Eve) brings these tensions to a sharp explosion of revelations and epiphanies.

The author’s knowledge and love of Barcelona are clear from his vivid descriptions of places, architecture and ambience. Another reviewer (at rightly admired the “passages of almost scholarly historic reference and beautiful expositions of particularly poignant works of art that give the plot a rich cultural context”.

There are some lovely turns of phrase, with flashes of poetic imagery, startling similes and curious metaphors. The tone ranges from lightly self-deprecating to deeply philosophical, with some parts written in an almost scientifically disinterested style and others using language so alluring and sensual as to qualify as genuinely erotic, without being pornographic.

Celia’s Room is not a flawless masterpiece, and could have done with some editing. However, this is the author’s first adult novel, and given the theme(s), he can hardly be faulted for beginning in a somewhat fumbling style, increasing in confidence and rhythm as the story unfurls.

As a meditation on sexuality, I found Celia’s Room insightful and thought provoking. Perhaps more importantly, I enjoyed the story a lot, and at times laughed out loud. This intelligent and entertaining book is fun, and definitely well worth reading!

Children of War

As part of my research for City of Children, I’m reading Hijos de la guerra by Jorge M. Reverte and Socorro Thomás (Ediciones Temas de Hoy, S.A., Madrid, 2001). The book is a series of testimonies by different people who were children during the Spanish Civil War, from all over Spain, raised in diverse ideological contexts. It conveys the reality of war’s complexity, a far cry from the black-and-white simplicity of a film reel.

The children watch the adults executing their enemies against the white cemetery wall—both sides, always in retaliation for a previous crime. The daughter of a nationalist remembers Italian fascist troops straggling one by one into her village after their defeat at the battle of Guadalajara; the soldiers’ friendliness, offering her fresh-baked bread dipped in olive oil; but also her whole family’s horror when a judge, a friend of the family, is executed for being a freemason, and her father’s realisation, listening to Queipo de Llano’s discourses on Radio Sevilla, of the lies that the nationalists were propagating: “[Dad] told us he had a bottle of sherry at the radio. Sometimes he interrupted his speech, filled his glass, burped and said: ‘There, to the Pasionaria*’s health!’ My Dad didn’t like him at all.”

Other children remember spending days in bed, unable to venture outside because of the bullets whining past the house, forbidden to lock their doors by the nationalists, in case they are harbouring “reds”.

These children’s memories, retold by their adult selves, reveal the quotidian horror of war, mixed with a matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation. The horror is real, creating understandable trauma, yet these young people function, are capable of pushing the terror into the background, integrating it into their daily routine, and continuing their existence. It strikes me that despite how vulnerable children may be, they are also endlessly resourceful in their ability to overcome traumatic events and to go on. Maybe this is true of all human beings; that no matter how bad the horror gets, we are genetically incapable of giving up.

*La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, was one of the Spanish Communist leaders throughout much of the 20th century, a member of the Spanish parliament for Asturias, exiled in the USSR from 1939 to 1977, General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party in exile, and once more an MP after her return to Spain. She died in 1989.

Spanish history repeating on Libyan soil

Current events in Libya bring to mind similarities with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) even if contexts differ. Yet both wars have captured world attention for their wishful idealism, a struggle for freedom and democracy against repression.
Spain was torn by war after decades of internal strife. The country’s ultra-conservative factions saw a military uprising against the democratic system as the surest road to political and economic stability, a bid to reinstate the iron calm of Primo de Rivera’s earlier dictatorship. The fascist rebels envisioned a swift, bloody coup yet faced the grinding reality of a 3-year war. Difficulties in communications were a factor influencing both sides.
The Libyan situation has been sparked by external events. Access by a segment of the population to the social media (FaceBook, Twitter, etc.) has been decisive in enabling information to spread. The Libyan people are seeking democracy and freedom after more than forty years of dictatorship.
However, like Franco and Mola (the military mastermind behind the 1936 coup to which Franco was a late addition), Gaddafi is employing foreign mercenaries because their brutality can be trusted when one’s own people must be slaughtered. Terror is a key strategy in repressing civilian populations. Mola’s exact words were: “We must spread terror… we must create the sensation of dominance by eliminating, unscrupulously and unhesitatingly, all those who do not think as we do.” And they are pertinent to Gaddafi’s strategy.
The Libyan people, like the Spanish Republicans in 1936, are poorly armed, untrained and lacking professional army officers, the majority of whom have remained loyal to Gaddafi. They are inspired by a will to overcome. Yet it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to triumph over the bullets and bombs of a highly trained army.
Lastly, the Non-Intervention Treaty which kept Britain, France and the USA from sending aid to the beleaguered Spanish government was a key element in the fall of Spanish democracy. Allied as this was to the siding of 75% of Spain’s diplomats with the Fascist uprising, and Germany’s and Italy’s flouting of the Treaty, many saw Spain’s defence as heroically doomed from the start. Yet still they fought and cried: “They shall not pass!” Today it looks increasingly doubtful whether the international community will pass from words to action with the ephemeral promise of a no-fly zone over Libya, but it’s looking as if Libya’s democracy will be stillborn.

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