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Published: March 15th 2010
Viva la República! Viva Josh Ritter! Viva Model UN!
Since I’m playing hookey today getting over a cold, it’s the perfect occasion to write a blog about events of the last couple of weeks.
During my thesis research, I joined a listserv (e-mail newsletter) of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), based out of New York University. Advertised on this listserv was the amazing opportunity to meet up with some Brits, Irish and Spaniards in Madrid to mark the anniversary of two famous battles of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39): Jarama and Brunete. I jumped at the chance because studying an historical event in a library is one thing, but actually seeing where it all happened is quite another. I should say that this war often gets skipped over in history classes in favor of examining World War Two, so it was a refreshing sight to see so many people who care about this historical moment.
The celebrations during the last weekend in February were to commemorate the Irish poet Charlie Donnelly (Charlie Donnelly
) who fought for the Republic in the International Brigades. To make a long story short, the International Brigades were organized by the Communist International, or
more vets of the time.
Comintern, as a multi-national fighting force to aid the Republic. This was largely done in response to the overwhelming military and logistical support given to Franco and his Nationalists by both Hitler and Mussolini. Technically, all of this aid to both sides was illegal as the major European powers and America signed a “Non-intervention” agreement at the start of the war. Due to several reasons, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy did not respect this agreement, although the other powers remained “neutral” throughout the war following the unfortunate appeasement strategy that arguably led the whole world into war in 1939. Besides minimal support from Mexico, the Soviet Union was the only major power to openly support the Republic by sponsoring the International Brigades and sending war materiel to Spain. (For more background, you can buy my book! "Soldiers of Paper and Ink": American Intellectual Interpretations of the Spanish Civil War
The International Brigades were comprised of some 30,000 people from more than 50 countries, including an American battalion known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The interesting thing about the brigades is that their soldiers were all volunteers who traveled to Spain—usually illegally because of neutrality visa restrictions—because they wanted to fight against fascism, not because they were drafted or forced to
At the Jarama battlefield. the IB monument is a small raised fist in the background.
go. Also, in keeping with the IB’s communist roots, each unit also had a political commissar attached to it for educating the soldiers along Party lines while at war. Ironically, these soldiers probably got more political training than actual military training. There are stories of new recruits firing a few practice rounds from a WWI-era rifle (or earlier) just hours before being committed to battle against Franco’s experienced and technologically superior armies.
The battle of Jarama was one of the first actions of the Brigades. Franco wanted to cut the road between Madrid and Valencia, the latter being where the Republic’s temporary government had been moved during the siege of Madrid. Although both sides claimed it a victory, it really was a stalemate with both armies suffering thousands of casualties for not much change in the overall front lines.
Our group met in Madrid for a preliminary talk by historian Richard Baxell about the British battalion’s involvement in Jarama. The little hall at the Friends of UNESCO center in downtown Madrid was packed with Spanish and English-speakers alike. Much to my surprise, I was only one of two Americans who attended (the other being a representative from ALBA
The monument to Irish poet Charlie Donnelly.
and relative of someone who fought in the war). The next day, a Saturday, we woke up early to catch a bus out to the pueblo of Rivas-Vaciamadrid where a crowd of a couple hundred people gathered to unveil a monument to Charlie Donnelly. Amid unfurled Republican banners and the mournful sounds of bagpipes, there were even some Spaniards there who lived through the war—a touching sight! Also in attendance was the mayor of Rivas-Vaciamadrid, representatives from the Donnelly family and the member of the Spanish parliament who was responsible for securing Spanish citizenship for those international veterans of the civil war. Even though my interest in the civil war is purely academic, it was hard not to tear up when the ol’ boys gave the Republican fist salute during the Internationale.
After this ceremony we were bused out to the battlefield, which lies just east of Madrid. There’s a monument here to the International Brigades and we had lunch by it. After that, a group of us split off as “Danny’s Division” in search of the ominously-named “Suicide Hill” that the Brigaders finally gave up after days of intense fighting. While our leader may have been knowledgeable about
Our bus, aptly named the "Chaos bus".
the battle, we got very lost following dugout tracks through the Spanish countryside and never actually made it to Suicide Hill. Oh well, the walk reminded me of what these guys must have gone through, except that I didn’t have 50 lbs of gear on my back and bullets whizzing over my head! Interestingly enough, the battle is remembered by Woody Guthrie in the song “Jarama Valley” Woody Guthrie's "Jarama Valley"
The next day a smaller group of Brits and I headed out to Brunete, this time to the west of Madrid. Brunete was a battle initiated by the Republicans to distract Franco from the siege of Madrid. Politically, it was meant to show the Soviets that the Spanish could organize an offensive on their own and win.
For me, this visit was much more rewarding. Several Spaniards who have meticulously researched these battlefields accompanied us and, although they spoke pretty good English to the group, I was able to speak Spanish with them and understood a lot more about the battle. As a bonus, we even found some shell casings from Russian-made Mosin-Nagant rifles and a tailfin of a mortar. Our Spanish guides took us through the hills and on
Trench at Brunete
If you look closely, you will see a zig-zag depression just before these trees. That's a hastily-dug Republican trench.
this beautiful, sunny day it was hard to believe that this area was a hot, hellish mess in the summer of 1937. You can still see the trenches and bullet holes in some of the houses in the surrounding countryside. Although I don’t think I’ll become a battlefield scavenger anytime soon, it was so interesting to be in the places where these men fought and died. The whole experience really brought home the importance of why we should study the past, but not just through books and academia but also by actually experiencing it.
After an historically heavy day, I managed to score a ticket to a sold out show of the Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the music-movie “Once”) and Josh Ritter!!! Although Josh only played for about half an hour, it was good to hear some of my favorites like “Kathleen” and “Snow is Gone.” It just so happened that this last tour date was also Marketa’s birthday, so they brought everyone on stage and gave her a big birthday cake. Also, a lucky Spanish audience member got to play castanets on a couple of songs at the invitation of Marketa! It was an
Live in Madrid!!!
awesome show and an excellent way to cap a fun-filled weekend.
The following week saw me all dressed up as I switched gears to chair the Latin American committee of Madrid’s 4th annual Global Classrooms Model United Nations conference. This was the culmination of several months of work by all secondary Fulbright Teaching Assistants and more than 200 students from 10 bilingual middle schools in the Comunidad de Madrid. During the conference, students work together to form regional blocs and write resolutions to solve a world problem. Interestingly enough, this year’s topic was “access to education.” (If you ask me, this was pretty vanilla. I would’ve gone with nuclear non-proliferation or something more controversial!) Nevertheless, my school came away with three awards for the delegations representing Nepal, Uganda and Nicaragua, so congrats guys! And, I am all the more proud of all my kids because they did it all in English! We got to go to the Madrid parliament building for the opening and closing ceremonies, which although stuffy, was a fitting place to recognize the students’ achievements. Also, I just fond out that I will be heading to New York City with some of the students to participate
Some of my students talking with the American ambassador to Spain!
in the worldwide Model UN simulation from May 11-16. So, if anyone is in or around the Big Apple during that time, let me know and we can get together!
This week I head north to Santander for Fulbright’s mid-year meeting, so I won’t be blogging much until after that is done. Also, I just returned from a visit to Galicia and the magnificent medieval pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. I will probably combine those two visits into a “blog del norte” once I return next weekend. Then, my Mom, aunt and friend Jesse are all going to be here for spring break! I am so excited to have them (and feel free to follow their lead if you are so inclined to make a visit to Spain). So long until next time!
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