Tuesday 18 December 2018

Catalonia pays homage to heroes of bloody past but will not go down the path to ruin

True colours: A woman wearing a Spanish flag on her shoulders looks at a giant flag of Catalonia as people celebrate a holiday known as Dia de la Hispanidad, or Spain’s National Day, in Barcelona last Thursday, amid one of the country’s biggest crises ever as the north-eastern region threatens independence. Photo: AP
True colours: A woman wearing a Spanish flag on her shoulders looks at a giant flag of Catalonia as people celebrate a holiday known as Dia de la Hispanidad, or Spain’s National Day, in Barcelona last Thursday, amid one of the country’s biggest crises ever as the north-eastern region threatens independence. Photo: AP

Fergal Keane

It was the day of the general strike but the cleaners had all turned up for work. They were all proud Catalans but in this place the work would go on. It would have taken a foolhardy soul to suggest otherwise to them.

They moved along the stone paths and around the verges and the headstones, past the columns with the names of the known dead, sweeping and clipping in the shade of the cliff that dominates the quarry of Fossar de La Pedrera.

A simple inscription on one column reads: "In this quarry graveyard rest those who were shot, in the Camp de la Bota and other places, by the Fascist forces in the year 1939. For many of them we will never know their names but our tribute is for all."

Franco rode into Barcelona on January 26, 1939, a plump and diminutive figure giving the fascist salute from his jeep at the head of a phalanx of Moroccan cavalry. To paraphrase the Book of Revelations: hell followed with them for the political enemies of fascism. By the end of the year, his ally Adolf Hitler had rolled into Poland and ignited the Second World War. In his victory speech, Franco exulted in the triumph of fascism and the death of the liberal world order.

"All contemporary events show us we are witnessing the end of one era and the beginnings of another; that the liberal world is going down a victim to its own errors, and with it are disappearing commercial imperialism, financial capitalism and mass unemployment."

How familiar is that language to our 21st century ears. We hear it constantly these days from the partisans of the extreme right and extreme left. It is as much nonsense now as it was then. Our great prayer, and the great task of the age, is to ensure such simplistic, crude, malignant ideology is never again allowed to capture the hearts and minds of a majority, anywhere in the world.

There are 1,700 people buried at the Fossar. All are victims of the executions that followed Francesco Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War.

The Fossar was where the bodies were brought to be dumped after being killed elsewhere in Barcelona. There is the grave of the boxer Carlos Flix Morera, tortured and executed on March 31, 1939; the politician Manuel Carrasco I Formiguera, shot dead despite being a conservative Catholic; and even a grave from the 1970s, that of Salvador Puig Antich, a young anarchist sentenced to death for the killing of a policeman in a gun battle. Antich was executed by garrotte - a brutally medieval method of slow strangulation. He was killed in 1974, a year before the death of Franco, and would become an icon of the Catalan cause.

The Fossar evokes the passions ignited by that cause while simultaneously reminding the visitor of its immense complexities. Here lie Catalan nationalists, anarchists, socialists, communists, even the aforementioned conservative. The graves are testament to a political past that was united in its opposition to Franco but profoundly divided on the question of the kind of country they imagined. The present day nationalism of Catalonia resists easy definition.

I thought of the exchange in Ulysses when Leopold Bloom finds himself baited by the nationalists in Barney Kiernan's pub. They are demanding to know of this Jewish outsider… what is a nation?

What is it? says John Wyse.

A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years.

It is the attachment to place that defines the idea of nation for Bloom, not the stricter confines of race or culture. The 'same people' does not mean ethnically the same but rather the sameness of community, of neighbourliness, above all the bonds of values. I heard the echoes of Bloom in Catalonia.

On the day of the general strike, hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities to protest against police brutality. On the previous weekend, national police in full riot gear were filmed battering voters in the independence referendum declared by the Catalan government.

The mood of public outrage was palpable from the moment I arrived in Barcelona. But walking among the crowds, I did not once detect a note of atavism. There was no hatred of Spain or the Spanish. And no Catalan exceptionalism that sought to denigrate those who called themselves Spaniards. This is partly to do with the memories of a fractious political past. People here are too sophisticated and devoted to argument to fall for the easy lies of ethnic nationalism.

I am willing to take a risk here. When threats of secession emerge in modern-day Europe, the spectres of Croatia and Bosnia loom large. I do not see Catalonia descending into violence.

There may be further street protest and more strikes, perhaps even the deployment of large numbers of police and troops to ensure essential services.

But the Catalans I met during my visit - and I made a point of seeking out people from all walks of life - were too politically astute to follow a path of ruin. The horrors of the secessionist war in eastern Ukraine have had a strong impact here and the images of Sarajevo's destruction made a vivid imprint on many minds.

And there are the more intimate memories, of the dead in the quarry of Fossar on the hill above the city, which inspire a determination to keep blood from flowing again in Catalonia.

Fergal Keane is a foreign correspondent with the BBC.

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