Street Scene

THIS is the third time that I have seen Spain in upheaval. An interest in her art, landscape, and psychology have led me to spend the greater part of the last five years in that country. I have visited almost every province, and learned enough of the elegant Castilian idiom to support life and exchange elementary ideas. I was in Seville when the republic was declared on April 14, 1931 (celebrating the sixty-sixth anniversary of the shooting of Abraham Lincoln). And I was in Málaga when General Sanjurjo sprung his ill-judged reactionary movement on August 10, 1932. Both Seville and Málaga are highly excitable places, yet these critical events took place with the minimum of disorder. In Seville there was a little street fighting, and we foreigners were huddled in the central rooms of the hotel for a few hours, but soon all was normal and tourists were busily engaged photographing bullet holes on the facade of the hotel as pleasing souvenirs of travel. I was more impressed by hearing a lonely guitar in the street play the ‘Marseillaise.’

General Sanjurjo’s affair was almost as suavely dealt with. It was anticipated by the government’s secret service; he and his rebel troops found their rendezvous occupied by machine guns; there was very little fighting and the whole lot were captured and court-martialed. An ardent young republican whom I knew in Málaga burned with the desire to see Sanjurjo shot. ‘No tengo sed de la sangre,‘ said he, and I quote him in Spanish because the words seem so much more pictorial than our colloquial ‘bloodthirsty.’ ‘No tengo sed de la sangre pero la ley es la ley.’

Sanjurjo did not get the death penalty. He got a term of imprisonment, and then either he escaped or the sentence was commuted to exile, I forget which. At any rate he had been living quietly in Portugal until Franco started the present trouble. Sanjurjo took a plane to join the movement, crashed, and was killed — doubtless convincing my young friend that in the long run la ley es la ley.

In Málaga, where passions run so high, the chief repercussion of the 1932 affair was that a fancy-dress ball to be given at the hotel the night when the news came was postponed for a few days. The fathers of the youthful participants were said to be largely on Sanjurjo’s lists; some were arrested; and the prudent management felt that a few well-placed bombs might not only extinguish several noble families, but damage the hotel.

Far more serious was the popular rising in Asturias in the autumn of 1934. I was not in Spain when that happened, but the following summer I visited Oviedo and found it looking like an earthquake city. The cathedral, to be sure, was standing, but its fine glass was gone — a battle had been fought inside it, each side taking cover behind the Gothic pillars, whose edges were serrated by rifle fire; and of the priceless Cámara Santa not one stone was left upon another. But this outbreak, chiefly the work of striking miners, was promptly and forcibly dealt with by the army and the Guardia Civil. Persons I know who had not been in sympathy with the republic, and were skeptical of its stability, revised their views on seeing how ably its forces dealt with this terrible affair.

I review these matters to explain my unquestioning faith in the ability of the government of Spain to maintain order at least as well as the governments of various states of the United States. I have been more than once complimented by Spaniards on my courage in living in New York. My faith was only strengthened by the fact that of the weeks from June 8 to July 13, which I spent in Barcelona, ten days or a fortnight were occupied by a strike of salesmen and saleswomen without the slightest symptom of disorder. A hundred thousand well-dressed and cheerful-looking strikers were indistinguishable from the rest of the crowds in the fine streets of that attractive city.

One knew the strike was on only because the shops were closed and the police added a rifle to their equipment of automatics. One morning, on sallying from the hotel, I noted that the pair of policemen who always stood at the door were without their rifles. ‘So the strike is over?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Who won?’ ‘Both sides; both sides always win in Spain.’

From no Spaniard did I get a hint by word or look that there was anything ominous, but one canny little Englishwoman long resident in Spain said, Y don’t like the look of things and I am transferring my money to England as fast as the law allows.’ And an English official of my bank said, ‘ There’s a bit of politics in this strike, you know.’ Three weeks later the bank was being bombed.

These hints fell on stony ground in my mind, and it was in complete innocence that my sister and I went down to Tarragona for a day or two to visit the admirable cathedral and the still more remarkable monastery of Poblet, thirty-five miles inland. It was on July 17 that we drove to Poblet. The owner of the car, who drove us himself, was a prosperous citizen of middle age, justly proud of his city and province. He pointed out the magnificent fertility and beauty of the campo behind Tarragona; the cleverness of the little river, with the pretty name of Francolí, in threading its way through the miniature sierra that divides Tarragona from Lérida; and the fact that, seen across the plain from the crest of this sierra, Tarragona displayed in silhouette against the Mediterranean her spires and towers, but no factory chimneys.

I always ask in a new place, ‘Is there much unemployment here? ’ In many provinces on the Atlantic Coast and in the South the answer is a tragic one. In Andalusia it seems that the prevalent black poverty is due not only to the heavy rains last spring, which upset agriculture, but to the exactions and decrease in wages by landowners under the late Rightist ministry. But my Tarragona friend laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there is no unemployment; there are no poor and there are no rich; the people are farmers or fishermen or shopkeepers; everyone has a little; between the sea and the campo we produce enough to feed the province if the rest of the world should disappear.‘

On the morning of July 19, in the last Spanish newspapers we were to see, we read that General Franco was heading a mutiny of troops in Morocco ‘to save the republic.’ Well, what of it? We had lived through Sanjurjo without a jar; why not Franco? But the beautiful tree-shaded avenue which is the main street of Tarragona was strangely deserted. The soldiers, ordinarily a conspicuous part of the promenaders, were absent. And in the afternoon, as suddenly as though it had been turned on by radio, there came rushing down under the plane trees a procession of camions and cars, armored with mattresses and filled with yelling crowds of armed men, red rags round their heads, the hammer and sickle chalked on the sides of their vehicles, their clenched fists shaken in the unattractive Communist salute. Who were they? Had the earthly paradise described by our driver-friend spewed them up? Was his car among these so furiously driven?

The little band of tourists seated on the terrace of the hotel gaped in amazement. One of us, an Englishman, was filled with a sense of personal outrage. ‘ It’s an American gangster film,’ he said. ‘I never expected to see a gang of ruffians in a car pointing guns at me!’

As to the film-like quality of the apparitions I agreed entirely. But those disheveled ruffians with shining faces, gloriously letting themselves go, did not suggest to me our poker-faced gangsters, but rather the mob in the film, A Tale of Two Cities. It is an historical irony that I had seen this film presented in Barcelona the week before in a fashionable theatre before a crowded house of good-looking men and women in gay summer clothes. There was no more sense of impending tragedy than when I saw it months ago on Cape Cod.

Curiously enough, those guns did nothing but point. As far as I know, not a shot was fired during the four days we spent in Tarragona amid this bloodless terror. But the peaceful inhabitants disappeared from the streets. A general strike was declared. All shops were closed. There were no more trains, newspapers, telephone, telegraph, or radio. And every afternoon, and late into the night, the horrific cars rushed shrieking through the streets. The mornings were quiet. The city was dead. Probably the rioters were making up lost sleep. We wished they would operate in the morning and let us rest at night. Finally I took to closing my windows and, like the East in Matthew Arnold’s poem, I ‘let the legions thunder past, and plunged in thought again.’

As far as I know, there were but two churches in Tarragona besides the cathedral and little old San Pablo. Those two were well and truly burnt. One was a modern building, so painstakingly and expensively ugly that one could not regret it. It was so near the hotel that the technique of destruction was observable. Before firing the structure the destroyers in an orderly manner removed everything removable, under the eyes of a few municipal police, and stored it, quaintly enough, in the town hall. This sinister fact stated as plainly as a newspaper headline that Señor Companys and the Catalan Government were unable to control their red allies.

The next sinister fact was this. On one of those afternoons a procession of trucks filled with Guardia Civil and accompanied by others on motorcycles came at full speed down our avenue. These are the real custodians of order in Spain, a fine body of picked men, brave, resourceful, and true to duty. Now the trouble was as good as over. But unhappily, wherever they went in such a hurry, we never saw them again.

Among these scenes of furious action remains in my mind what might almost be called a still-life. Our hotel stood at the most important four corners of Tarragona, and we had often admired in the days of quiet the demeanor of the traffic policemen who succeeded each other there, clad in beautiful white trousers, belt, gloves, cap, and blue tunic, presiding with the gestures of automata over the traffic, which consisted chiefly of tourists’ cars, prams, bicycles, and the periodic omnibuses. During the terrific hours of disorder one was always at his post. When a screaming truck bore down on him at fifty miles an hour, his immaculate white gloves still gave it politely the right of way.

The third and most alarming sinister event was, paradoxically, our rescue by H.M.S. Garland. We tourists had naturally been in frequent conference as to what it was all about, how long it was going to last, and how we were going to get out. On the first and third points we had no data. In reply to my question on the second point, the reception clerk said jauntily, ‘Who knows? Your civil war lasted seven [sic] years.’ And, most pressing question of all, when would the temptation to let off those guns become irresistible?

On the afternoon of the fourth day of futile conference there strolled into the hotel, without escort or arms, three whiteclad officers of the British Navy, who asked us with a pleasant English lack of emphasis whether we should care to go to Marseilles with them. They knew even less than we what was going on. They only knew that, having arrived the day before at Malta from Alexandria, they were preparing for an overdue shore leave when orders came in the middle of the night to proceed at full speed to Tarragona and Sitjes and carry to Marseilles any English or Americans they might find at those ports. But, although they knew little, it was obvious that the Admiralty knew much, and if the Admiralty postponed again that shore leave we had another headline: Spain was ablaze.

The kindness and hospitality of the officers and men of the Garland are another story. The voyage across the quiet sea under a young moon would have been a pleasant summer cruise if here and there, as long as the Spanish coast was in sight, there had not been visible the flames from burning churches.

As I know now, planes far out at sea were bombing Mallorca. I know a Spaniard there who in his youth as a captain of cavalry was stationed at Manila Bay on the day when Gridley got ready and fired. My friend came out of the affair with a limp, one eye, a pension, and a tendency to like Americans. ‘They tended me in that hospital,’ said he, ‘as though I were one of their own. Admiral Dewey himself came often to see me, and when he heard there was a chance to save one of my eyes he sent to San Francisco for an oculist. Here is a man who did his best to kill me at great expense; then at great expense he saved my eye. There is no sense in war.’ He gave his young strength and his career for his countrymen. Now they are bombing him and there is no kind Admiral Dewey to patch him up.

I am told that in the Balearic Islands originated the warning phrase Moros en la costa (‘Moors on the coast’), which is now a colorless or somewhat jocose signal of something unpleasant — an unwelcome guest, perhaps, or a watchful duenna. But for centuries it was the most bloodcurdling cry that could be heard in a seaside town of Spain. Now General Franco has brought back the Moor. Moorish troops are actually killing Christians about Cordoba, No one has ever denied that the Moor is a first-rate fighting man; Abd-el-Krim’s campaigns proved his qualities. An item I have caught in an English newspaper, if it be true, shows that General Franco is aware of the fearful risk he is running, for the item states that arms are taken from the Moorish troops when they are in camp or in transit and restored only when they go into action. Isabella the Catholic, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Considering the struggle now from a distance and with reports from newspapers, not Spanish, of differing opinions, I feel that it would be easy to analyze it too simply as a war between Communists and anticlericals, on the one hand, and royalists and Catholics on the other. Before these words are printed it may have come to be that. But, if I know anything about the Spanish people, good Catholics are often good republicans. Two friends of mine in Madrid, scholarly and thoughtful people, who are both republicans and Catholics, told me in the early days of the republic that, though the Church was being dealt with too hardly, it would be saved spiritually by being disestablished and supported only by the people who want it. There are long years of oppression by the Church to be liquidated, and there are almost as many superfluous clerics in the Church as generals in the army. The Basques, the most loyal churchmen in Spain, are, at this writing, fighting furiously for the Frente Popular, although the bishops are telling them how wicked such conduct is. I gather from the Times that shortly after the outbreak began, while I was cut off from newspapers, a manifesto was issued in favor of the government among whose signatories were Menendez Pidal, president of the Spanish Academy, and a prominent Catholic; Ossorio Gallardo, a distinguished Catholic lawyer; Ortega y Gasset and Pérez de Ayala, Catholics whose works we all know. Perhaps the extremists between them will drive all these men into silence; I am sure they will never make anti-republicans of them.

The ease with which political and religious issues may be confused is illustrated by an incident that happened on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, in 1933, when I was in Madrid. Walking in the principal streets in the morning, I admired the decorations on almost every house. Most frequently was displayed a white banner with the flaming heart embroidered on it; some houses hung out brocades and tapestries, some the flag of the republic, and not a few, to my surprise, the flag of the old régime, which it is a misdemeanor to display. In every case that I noted, a paper heart was pinned or pasted on the old flag. The police ordered the old flags to be withdrawn, but this was not always done. Late in the afternoon a lot of rowdy republicans undertook to remove them. A riot ensued, which the police dealt with impartially, arresting everyone on either side whom they found disturbing the peace.

I caught only two slight references to this in American and English papers, but in each it was written down unequivocally as an attack by anti-clerical republicans on a sacred symbol. In Madrid it was understood well enough as a political riot in which the sacred symbol was compromised because it had been provocatively used for a political purpose.

It may be that in the condition of Europe, which requires a state to be strongly organized if it is to survive, there is no time for Spain to go on with its trial-and-error experiments in democratic government. But if it turns for a while into a Fascist state, there will remain under the surface a great body of liberals, among them perhaps the best minds of Spain, and the young men and women to whom the republic was and is a religion. If it turns Communist, my guess is that after a generation or two of the guerrilla, to which it gave the name and which it enjoys almost as much as the corrida, it will be a desert.