Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Here is the final episode of season 2 of my podcast series about life in Spain. This one takes a look at history.

This is the link to the Apple Podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-20-the-spanish-civil-war/id1469809686?i=1000470642054

And here is the video on YouTube:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.

I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.

So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.

In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born. 

The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.

The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.

At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.

Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.

In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.

To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.

As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.

Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

The next episode of my Spanish podcast is out, this one about Spanish eating culture. Here’s the link to apple podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-19-spanish-eating-culture/id1469809686?i=1000469772585

And here’s the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It’s been pretty hard for me to motivate myself to do this podcast lately, now that everything is so crazy. After all, this podcast is about life in Spain, and life in Spain has basically stopped thanks to the coronavirus. The streets are empty, the cafés are closed. Here in Spain, we’re not even allowed to go on walks or exercise in the open air, unlike people are in most other countries. So I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of Spanish life lately. 

But all this isolation has given me a lot of time to think. And the lockdowns being carried out all around the world are creating rather interesting conditions to compare countries side by side. The way people will react to them is partly a result of culture, I think. To be honest, I’m quite surprised at how Spain is reacting to the lockdown. In my experience, Spanish people are being quite cooperative. The streets are mostly empty and I haven’t really seen any disobedience with my own eyes. It’s bringing out a sense of solidarity in Spanish culture that I’ve never seen before. Everyone seems quite willing to do their part. And every night, at 8 pm, everyone gathers on their balconies and cheers for the doctors and nurses. Some people are even cheering for the police!

I doubt that Americans will adjust so easily to a lockdown. Though they’re both recognizably Western cultures, I think Americans are more concerned with notions of freedom and rights than people are in Spain (where democracy is younger), and so I doubt many Americans will be comfortable with having police cars patrol their neighborhoods, giving big fines to anyone disobeying the orders. Speaking for myself, I admit that it does make me feel queasy. But maybe I’m wrong, and the crisis will bring out a sense of solidarity and cooperation in America, too. After all, I didn’t predict that Spanish people—who love going outside and being social—would adjust so easily to being inside. 

Now that we’re seeing Italy and Spain hit hard by this disease, it makes me wonder if culture has something to do with this. In this podcast I’ve repeatedly talked about the Spaniards love of proximity. This is true on every level. They like high density living, they like getting real close when they talk to each other, they like crowded bars. Spanish people just want to be close. Also, physical contact is much more permissible here, and kissing and handshaking is done ritualistically. Another interesting point to consider is that Spaniards have a lot of cross-generational contact. Lots of people live with their parents well into their twenties, and Spanish people keep in very close touch with their elderly parents and grandparents, often going to visit them every other weekend. Unfortunately, all of these aspects of Spanish culture may have made them more susceptible.

Well, in this podcast I don’t want to speculate about the virus. Rather, I want to pay homage to one of my favorite aspects of Spanish culture: its eating culture. This is one of the things from my daily life that I really miss, and I very much hope that we can beat this virus as quickly as possible, so we can get back to the good life of food and drink.

There are some obvious differences between Spanish and American eating cultures. The most obvious is probably just the schedule. In Spain, you eat late. Typical time for lunch is 2-3, and for dinner it can be from 9 all the way to 11. Another obvious difference is the quantity of food consumed in each meal. In America we have pretty big breakfasts, medium-sized lunches, and big dinners. In Spain, breakfast is usually light, lunch is very big, and dinner is medium-sized. In general, portions in Spain are quite a bit smaller than they are in the US, but that’s not saying much I suppose.

To me, the most important differences in the eating culture aren’t the times or the portions, but the restaurant and bar culture. I think Spain has a claim to having the world’s greatest bar culture, and this is for a few reasons. One reason is that there are just so many. Spanish people love being in public, and the number of eating establishments reflects that. Madrid, for example, has over 15,000 bars and restaurants, which translates to 1 for every 211 residents. This means that everyone in the entire city could literally go to a bar or a restaurant at the same time, and there would be enough space. And the city basically does do that.* On any day, at any given hour, there are tons of people sitting in bars, cafés, and restaurants.

Becauses eating establishments are so common and so fundamental to Spanish life, they have a very different aesthetic as they do in America. In America we go to restaurants or bars on weekends, holidays, or for special occasions. For this reason, they put more effort into creating a special ambience with music and decoration. Many bars and restaurants in Madrid are not like that. They are bare-boned, no-frills (as one well-known website calls them). They’re just for hanging out. A big advantage is that there’s often no music, so you can have a decent conversation. Also, the lights are usually not dimmed, so you can see the people around you. The ambience is more like your own living room. 

Another huge difference is the lack of a tipping culture. Americans don’t really realize how much tipping affects our eating experience. Aside from the simple fact of having to calculate and pay the tip—which I find pretty annoying, now that I’m used to not doing it—tipping has a big effect on the entire experience. Waiters are motivated to be ingratiating, accommodating, but also fast. They want you in and out as fast as comfortably possible, since more people in and out translates into more money for them. And they will bend over backwards to give you good service. In Spain, it’s not like that at all. Most places don’t care if you stay there all night. And getting the attention of a Spanish waiter is famously difficult. They don’t have to pretend to love you.

Personally, on the whole, I think it’s much, much better. I don’t like being rushed out of restaurants. And I find this whole ritual of deciding how much a waiter “deserves” to be demeaning. I think waiters should just be paid a living wage so they can do their jobs serving food without having to be actors, too. I can never entirely relax in an American restaurant because of the pressure I feel to finish, the constant questions of “Would you like anything else?” and “Is everything alright?” In a Spanish restaurant, you can be as comfortable as in your own living room.

Another interesting difference between Spanish and American eating establishments is that Spanish bars and restaurants can often be quite generic. Since eating out is sort of a special experience in America, we expect eat restaurant to have something special, something that sets it apart. But in Spain, where eating out is as common as eating in, restaurants can be pretty standard. I like this a lot, since you always know what there is and what you can get, no matter where you are. And it makes ordering a lot easier. For example, you don’t need to specify the beer you want. The beer is standard, and you just specify how big a glass you want. Also, you don’t need to choose the wine from an elaborate wine menu. You can just order “white” or “red” and you get the standard wine. It’s actually kind of liberating not to have to make so many choices. I’m not a connoisseur, after all.

The menus from Spanish restaurants can also be really very similar. That’s because, in Spain, the eating culture is much more based on a national tradition than it is in America. There are national dishes here and that’s what everyone eats most of the time. What sets restaurants apart is not anything special on their menu, but just the quality of a typical Spanish dish. One place might have really good paella, for example, and another place has really good tortilla. The funny thing is, if you haven’t had much Spanish food, you might not be able to appreciate the difference. But once you’ve eaten a lot of it, you realize that it’s worth looking for a really good tortilla.

To sum up, the greatest thing about Spanish eating culture is that it’s for everyone, all the time. It’s a beautiful part of Spanish life, and I think it is an important and even a fundamental part of Spanish life. I loved it before this crisis, and now that I am deprived of it I love it even more. So consider this my homage, my tribute, to a special part of the culture that I hope we will be able to return to as soon as possible.


*I made a mistake in the recorded version of this podcast, saying 1 bar per 21 residents. In reality, not every resident could go to a bar at once.