14 June 2011

Belchite – Ghostly Reminder of the Spanish Civil War

As you approach the ghost town of Belchite in the Spanish province of Aragon the soil turns a deep red, almost like a sign that the place you are approaching is soaked in the blood of battle.  Belchite is perhaps the most powerful reminder in Spain of the devastation that war (in this case the civil war of 1936 – 39) can bring to human populations. It remains today as it was at its surrender on 1 September 1937.

August 24 1937 saw the beginning of the Battle of Belchite.  The Spanish Civil War cost the lives of over 300 thousand people and today the town can be seen as a quiet tribute to people – any people – who lost their lives in the conflict.  However, the town was left initially as it is for much darker political motives.

The battle was part of the Republican Army’s (communists, socialists and liberals, put very simply) major offensive in Aragon.  Belchite was along the line which led to their final target of the provincial capital of Zaragoza and the result was a bloodbath which lasted two weeks.  The battle left the town a smoking ruin of death, destroyed buildings and corpses, some six thousand of them.

The Nationalist (right wing, fascist – put simply) resistance in Belchite was fierce.  Under constant bombardment from artillery, plus Russian-trained fighter pilots, the nationalist defenders, numbering some seven thousand, held the town until 7 September when it was taken by the Republicans.

There were Americans involved in this battle.  The Lincoln-Washington Battalion (on the Republican side – volunteers, not sent by the US government) and were ordered to take the church.  Twenty two Americans joined in the first assault – and only two survived.  A diversionary attack later allowed the American battalion to enter the town but they suffered even heavier casualties.

However, due to the delays in taking the town, the Nationalist army were able to bring in reinforcements to Aragon and the full scale offensive on Zaragoza was doomed to failure.  When the war ended in 1939 the leader of the country was led by General Franco, who adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards opposition parties and trade unions.

Franco ordered Republican prisoners to return to Belchite and to rebuild it – his argument being that as they had destroyed it then it was their responsibility to restore it. However, the dictator had a perverse idea, a trick up his sleeve – that the town should be left destroyed and a new one built next to it.  He intended it to be a reminder of the damage wrought by the forces of communism on Spain.

So, the new town was built next door and old Belchite left to its own devices and still today gives a strong (albeit sanitised) impression of how the town looked at the end of the battle.  Franco’s decree has been diligently observed.  Although there is some shoring up of some buildings the town has been left to the forces of entropy and the overall atmosphere is one of deliberate neglect, which it could be argued is absolutely as it should be.

Many of the remains are very striking, in particular the churches and the old clock tower.  Many sculptures which adorned the exterior of the houses are still more or less intact.  There are little restrictions on the wandering tourist – you can go where you like. However, tourists should be aware that there is a risk from falling masonry.

There seems to be some disinclination on the part of Spanish authorities to properly preserve the site, due possibly to the fact that the civil war which so divided the country and its people (not to mention its aftermath under the steel fist of Franco) still retains that capacity. Perhaps the words of Albert Camus are an appropriate way to end this visit to Belchite.

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward. It is this, without doubt, which explains why so many men throughout the world regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.
Preface to L’Espagne Libre, 1945